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August 27, 2010

Charles Shaughnessy: Playing It Straight and Earning Huge Laughs in "Spamalot"

The dapper star of television’s “The Nanny,” “Days of Our Lives” and “Mad Men” finds his grail as King Arthur in Ogunquit Playhouse’s sparkling production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot”

Charles Shaughnessy and Rachel YorkAffable stage and television star Charles Shaughnessy – best know for playing Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield in the hit 1990s television series The Nanny – is currently bringing his natural wit and effortless charm to the role of King Arthur in the Ogunquit Playhouse’s rollicking production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. Continuing at the 78-year-old Maine seacoast landmark through September 11, Spamalot also stars Broadway’s Rachel York (City of Angels, Victor/Victoria, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as The Lady of the Lake and Jeffry Denman (Cats, The Producers, White Christmas) as Sir Robin.

Though recognized for his many years on The Nanny, Days of Our Lives and most recently Mad Men, Shaughnessy is no novice to musical theater. He has starred as King Arthur in Camelot, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and Caldwell B. Cladwell in Urinetown on Broadway. A British native born into a show business family (his mother was an actress and his father the principal writer and script editor on Upstairs/Downstairs), he studied drama in London and spent many years performing on stage before getting his big break on daytime television in Los Angeles. An alumnus of the famous Footlights Revue comedy group in Cambridge, England and a self-professed Monty Python fan, Shaughnessy is well equipped to handle both the pomp and the absurdity of his role in the Tony Award winning musical “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

“I have to confess, I didn’t really want to have anything to do with Spamalot originally,” Shaughnessy says candidly in a recent telephone interview. “As a Monty Python purist, I thought the musical would be just a cheap shot to get all the fans to come and quote all the lines. Charles Shaughnessy and the cast of SpamalotBut I have to say that seeing the way this show came together in rehearsals, I now love it. The show actually works. The songs and the lines aren’t thrown in willy nilly. It all makes sense. Before seeing the show I was unconvinced. But now I’m a big fan.”

Shaughnessy credits director/choreographer Scott Taylor and his “incredibly talented” cast with making a convert out of him. When not involved in a scene, he enjoys watching the hilarity that is swirling around him.

“I’m having a blast,” Shaughnessy exclaims. “Scotty has come at this with incredible energy. With eight days to get the show up, there’s booster rocket fuel behind it anyway. But coming at it as a choreographer who had been in the original show, Scotty had a natural sense of rhythm. He absolutely got it that any sort of indulgence and any sort of ‘playing the comedy’ was going to detonate a huge bomb under it. He was very keen to just let the comedy play itself. He was very, very adamant about that. He said, ‘If you find yourself being funny then you’re doing something wrong.’ ”

Jeffrey Scott Stevens and Charles ShaughnessyTaylor’s approach to creator Eric Idle’s outlandish material is paying massive dividends in Ogunquit these days. He and his cast have managed to bring a hilarious spark to jokes and songs that often go “on and on and on” by mixing inventive bits with exquisite comic timing. A show which felt stale during its national tour is now fresh and genuinely funny. Members of the entire ensemble – principals included – are serving the production and not their own egos. The result is a non-stop joy ride that never lets the audience see it sweat.

“This cast is fantastic,” Shaughnessy beams. “They are so good at what they do. Their routines, their musical numbers, their singing – I’m laughing as much as anyone. When I’m not actually speaking I really enjoy watching it.”

Much of Shaughnessy’s career has been spent playing the straight man reacting to the comic chaos around him. He says that suits him just fine. Every clown needs a foil to make the comedy work, and Shaughnessy’s easy chagrin perfectly suits him to play the nonplussed Abbott opposite the more colorful Costello.

“You do get cast in similar roles because of certain traits that you bring,” says Shaughnessy. “What I bring to this Arthur has a lot to do with Mr. Sheffield. Rachel York and Charles ShaughnessyI bring the slightly wounded pride and frustrated authority. In ‘The Nanny’ Fran and Miles took absolutely no notice of my character’s authority. I was constantly undermined. I’d say, ‘But I’m the father here,’ just as Arthur says, ‘But I’m the king.’ In both cases nobody pays attention to it. Both men are constantly struggling with a lack of respect.

“What’s nice about Spamalot is that Arthur is redeemed in the end,” Shaughnessy says. “He realizes that the Lady of the Lake has been with him all the time. Patsy and the Knights have been with him all the time. He’s not alone. I think playing Arthur as a real character, a serious character with a sincere through line, helps ground his reactions so that they are not over-reactions. In trying to play the truth of every moment, the comedy comes through naturally. The audience identifies with the character because his frustrations are real. That’s what makes it funny. If you comment on it, trying to make it funny, that’s when it all falls apart.

"Spamalot" continues at the Ogunquit Playhouse through September 11. Tickets, priced from $49 to $67, are available online at www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or at the box office by calling 207-646-5511. The season concludes September 15 through October 24 with "Chicago" starring Ogunquit favorite Sally Struthers as Matron “Mama” Morton.

PHOTOS COURTESY OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE: Chalres Shaughnessy as King Arthur and Rachel York as The Lady of the Lake; Charles Shaughnessy and the cast of Spamalot; Jeffrey Scott Stevens as Patsy and Charles Shaughnessy; Rachel York and Charles Shaughnessy

August 18, 2010

NSMT Returns to Form with Fun "Joseph"

American Idol finalist Anthony Fedorov stars in the North Shore Music Theatre's family-friendly favorite "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"

With its second outing in this its inaugural season as a newly opened for-profitAnthony Fedorov as Joseph regional theater company, the North Shore Music Theatre of Beverly, Mass. has gotten happily back on track with the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber crowd-pleaser, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Owner Bill Hanney and Producing Artistic Director Evans Haile have wisely gone back to the well, hiring seasoned director/choreographer Jayme McDaniel to mount this high-energy romp in the round. McDaniel, no stranger to Joseph or the team of Rice and Webber, very successfully staged Jesus Christ Superstar at NSMT in 2006.

McDaniel keeps the pace fast and the touch light as he moves his tremendously talented ensemble of adults and children fluidly about the stage and from scene to scene. If the details of the Old Testament story of Jacob, his favorite son Joseph, and the 11 “also ran” brothers who scheme to fake the fair-haired boy’s demise become a bit blurred in the process, it’s a small price to pay for the sheer entertainment value of the show’s tongue-in-cheek humor and vibrant production numbers. This Joseph may come up somewhat short on sincerity as fables generally go, but as dazzling eye and ear candy, it’s an awful lot of fun.

Anthony Fedorov (of American Idol fame) acquits himself rather nicely as the golden child Jennifer Paz as the Narrator(quite literally, in this case) whose ability to interpret others’ dreams takes him from papa’s boy to persecuted slave to the Pharaoh’s much revered second in command. He has a sure, steady tenor that wraps itself easily around Rice and Webber’s pop-rock score, and he demonstrates a cheer-inducing key-changing riffing ability on several occasions, as well – most notably at the end of his moving prisoner’s solo ballad, “Close Every Door.” While his acting is not as nuanced or commanding as one would hope for in a Joseph, Fedorov nonetheless has a confident and amiable stage presence that will only strengthen as he gains experience.

As the Narrator, sweet voiced and lovely Jennifer Paz brings a gentle, glowing quality to her storytelling that works very well when “instructing” her children’s chorus. When she is more directly involved as a commentator on the action, however, she could use more of a wry, winking edge. Director McDaniel seems to have made the choice to leave the Narrator on the periphery, although she is always visually at the center of attention whenever she’s advancing the tale. Unfortunately, by keeping her from ever truly interacting with her story’s characters, McDaniel has rendered Paz’s personality rather bland.

Gary Lynch as the Pharaoh with Anthony Fedorov as JospehJoseph’s widely eclectic score is all over the map musically, but the deliberate mishmash of genres creates a delightfully comic pastiche that McDaniel stages cleverly for huge laughs. Joseph’s brothers generate most of the fun as they coolly emulate the Jets in a West Side Story send-up (“Joseph’s Dreams”), wax laconic in a cowboy-western riff (“One More Angel in Heaven”), or don dreadlocks and play steel drums for “Benjamin’s Calypso.” The Pharaoh (deep, sexy-voiced Gary Lynch) enters the building in full Elvis regalia, singing his dream to Joseph in all-out hip-swiveling rock ’n’ roll. The Act I finale, “Go, Go, Go Joseph,” is a 1960s Carnaby Street feast highlighted by mini-skirts, psychedelic Afro wigs, and white vinyl go-go boots.

The hands down, no contest winner in the novelty musical number department, however, is “Those Canaan Days” featuring Daniel C. Levine as Napthali. In his very best Edith Piaf impersonation, Levine smokes a cigarette, drinks wine and leads his siblings in a potent, brooding reflection on the longed for good times of the past. A more bedraggled, miserable band of French cabaret torch singers could not be found on the Left Bank. The song climaxes in an endlessly sustained note (that generates wild applause) followed by a passionate Apache danced by the lithe and sexy Rachelle Rak and the virile and athletic Nick Kenkel.

Daniel C. Levine as NapthaliLike a child who doesn’t know when to stop saying “Look at me, look at me,” however, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sometimes gives us too much of a good thing. Several reprises wear out their welcome, and the Pharaoh inexplicably repeats his Elvis impersonation note for note, gesture for gesture. Then in the “Megamix/Finale,” half a dozen of the show’s flashiest songs are replayed, this time to a driving techno beat.

A disco party tacked onto the curtain calls seems a bit much for a Bible story that comes full circle with fresh-faced children learning the heartfelt lesson that “Any Dream Will Do.” There’s plenty of big entertainment in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to go around. Would it hurt to let the parable’s inspirational message linger just a bit at the end?

Joseph continues through August 22 at the North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Tickets, priced from $35 to $65, are available online at www.nsmt.org or at the Box Office at 978-232-7200.

PHOTOS BY PAUL LYDEN: Anthony Fedorov as Joseph; Jennifer Paz as the Narrator; Gary Lynch as the Pharaoh with Anthony Fedorov; Daniel C. Levine as Napthali


August 06, 2010

Stefanie Powers Drives Ogunquit's "Sunset Boulevard"

Stefanie Powers, starring at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse as fictional silent screen legend Norma Desmond, ably navigates the twists and turns of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” a musical homage to Hollywood’s film noir classic 

The success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sometimes brilliant but often ponderous musical Sunset Boulevard, adapted (almost slavishly) from Billy Wilder’s classic film noir by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, rests squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing the faded silent screen star Norma Desmond. Stefanie Powers as Norma DesmondAt Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, where the nation’s first fully staged regional production of this Tony Award-winning musical is now running through August 14, popular stage and television star Stefanie Powers handles her assignment with a balanced intensity that is both elegant and captivating. In a role that’s often parodied or played for camp, Powers finds the truth and  tragedy of this fictional forgotten soul who once was “the greatest star of all” but now cloisters herself in her crumbling mansion, an eccentric recluse clinging to memories of a glamorous past.

Powers’ Desmond is more star essence than star bombast, and that works just fine in Ogunquits’ intimate 500-seat playhouse. She seems to have internalized the lyric “with one look I can break your heart,” because time and again she does just that. When she utters the iconic line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” it is with a nuanced mix of prickly defensiveness, mournful sadness, unabashed ego, and a hint of a once magnificent confidence that years of rejection and obscurity have transformed into achingly false bravado. Despite ample opportunities to do so, Powers never veers into exaggerated facial expressions or grandiose scenery chewing. Rather, she incorporates Norma Desmond the actress’ dramatic silent screen mannerisms into Norma Desmond the woman’s own personality, masking insecurities with artful flourishes and maintaining the last vestiges of control over her teetering world with grand displays of calculated artistic temperament.

The dark story of Sunset Boulevard unfolds when the jaded down-on-his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Todd Gearhart) pulls into a garage at Desmond’s mansion while trying to escape two repo men in hot pursuit. Once Gillis hears that Desmond is writing a movie about the young temptress Salome – and that she intends to play the part herself – he contrives to work as her editor, seeing an opportunity to exploit a wealthy but vulnerable older woman whom he believes to be an easy mark. When she turns the tables and conspires with her devoted but mysterious servant Max (Sal Mistretta) to “keep” Gillis at her mansion, a dangerous relationship ensues. Gillis finds himself becoming more and more accustomed to the lifestyle Desmond’s gifts and affections afford him while her delusions of a comeback – or as she calls it, a “return” – grow stronger with each new concession Gillis makes to her demands. When reality ultimately kills Gillis’ hope of finding love with the innocent aspiring writer Betty (Christina Decicco) and disintegrates the last shreds of self-esteem the fragile Desmond possesses, Sunset Boulevard becomes littered with the corpses of broken dreams.

As Gillis, Gearhart has the thankless task of serving as both narrator and antagonist. Unfortunately what worked on film – having Gillis be his own wry commentator – fails on stage because the actor can’t be a voiceover and a participant at the same time. Stefanie Powers and Todd GearhartGearhart does his best to alternate between cool detachment and increasingly tormented self loathing, but he never truly engages with his co-stars or mines the complex contradictions that drive him to destroy himself, his true love, and the woman he has grown simultaneously to admire and resent. Throughout much of the musical exposition with which he is encumbered, he substitutes energy for emotion, mechanically telling the tale rather than cynically deprecating his own tragic folly. In his big solo, “Sunset Boulevard,” he misses the danger foreshadowed by his easy submission into the life of an amoral gigolo.

Gearhart redeems himself, however, in two wonderful scenes that culminate in beautifully written, moving duets. In the “New Year Tango” and “The Perfect Year,” he and Powers perfectly tinge the fantasy of giddy romance with the irony of self-delusion. Later, when he and Betty (Decicco) pronounce they are “Too Much in Love to Care,” he gets swept up in her idealism and exuberance, shedding his worries and rekindling his own forgotten dreams. When Gearhart is given the opportunity to settle into traditional book scenes and songs, he drops the forced mannerisms and truly shines. When saddled with clumsy dialog set to pretentious unmelodic music, he and Sunset Boulevard lose steam.

This particular musical is at once haunting and infuriating. It includes some of Lloyd Webber’s most eloquent songs and themes, yet it also turns the briefest of movie scenes into ridiculous, momentum killing production numbers (“The Lady’s Paying” and “A Little Suffering”). At times, lush soaring melodies evoke the glamour of the silver screen while resonant gothic underscoring builds suspense by suggesting macabre film noir. Then suddenly Sunset Boulevard yanks us out of the period and thrusts us into the world of ’70s and ’80s pop opera with songs like “Schwab’s Drugstore” and “This Time Next Year.” Both are anachronistic and derivative of Lloyd Webber’s own Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. Neither helps us understand the pain Joe Gillis experiences in leaving his contemporaries behind.

Quite the opposite is true for the magnificent “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Here Lloyd Webber and company have actually improved on the film, Todd Gearhart and Stefanie Powersproviding moving insights into Norma Desmond’s character. With stirring melodies and exquisite lyrics, these songs reveal the touching vulnerability yet glorious past of a woman deified, used, and then destroyed by a Hollywood studio system that discards obsolete talent like crumpled old tissues.

Powers sings these, and all her songs, with tremendous intuition and pathos. In “With One Look” she seems to transport herself back in time, shedding for the moment her wariness borne of reclusiveness and reclaiming her position as the queen of silent films. Later, as she returns to Paramount Studios convinced that Cecil B. DeMille wants her to star in her own screenplay of Salome, she sends an electric current through the audience with “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – not by belting the song to the rafters but by revealing first her fear, then her memories, and finally a growing sense of confidence that culminates in gratitude and joy at having a purpose in life again.

Throughout her performance, in fact, Powers draws the audience into her world rather than imposing big emotions onto them. She seems to get younger and stronger as Gillis’ attentions revitalize her, and she earns sympathy even while pushing her control over him to desperate and despicable extremes. Her ultimate collapse into madness once her hopes are crushed is riveting. At every turn, no matter how melodramatic the material becomes, Powers plays Desmond’s truth, not her persona.

Gorgeous costumes by Anthony Powell from the original Broadway production only enhance the elegance that Powers projects. Todd Edward Ivins’ art deco set design, however, struggles to convey the essential opulence of Desmond’s mansion. Decorative silver-toned sliding panels effectively suggest Paramount’s massive soundstage doors, but Ogunquit’s small playing area often restricts action to the narrow swath in front of the proscenium. Clever black and white movie projections add a touch of fun to the exterior car sequences, and a custom built replica of Desmond’s 1932 Isotta Fraschini convertible rolls on impressively, earning its own round of applause.

While Sunset Boulevard in and of itself is a show with multiple problems, it has moments of brilliance that are rendered beautifully by the star of this Ogunquit production. Who knows when there’ll be another chance to see this seldom staged musical? See it for the unique experience. See it for Stefanie Powers’ star turn.

"Sunset Boulevard" runs through August 14. Tickets are available online via the Ogunquit Playhouse website.

Photos courtesy of Ogunquit Playhouse: Stefanie Powers as Norma Desmond; Stefanie Powers and Todd Gearhart as Joe Gillis; Todd Gearhart and Stefanie Powers


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