North Haven, CT, 1987

In 1987, after thirteen years in Phoenix, AZ, I was released from my exile. I returned home to the greener, softer Northeast in a gentle summer. It rained a lot, and most days were unseasonably cool. On my birthday, in the first week of October, we had snow flurries. I was home at last.

It was a relief to be out of the brutal heat and vigilante mentality of the desert southwest. Gun-toting drivers routinely shot at one another, gossip-mongering moms unabashedly encouraged their children to ostracize “others,” and students in the ghetto of downtown Phoenix were deprived of equal education by the closure of neighborhood schools. Moving to Connecticut felt like ascending to heaven that first year. I expected to find safety. Refuge.

On a glorious bright blue Sunday morning in early Fall, my husband and I decided to take a walk to a restaurant not far from the center of our new hometown. The abundant leafy greenery had already begun to spin itself into gold and orange. The sky was the color of Delft, and a gentle breeze teased the edges of the exiting “Indian Summer” heatwave. We were in high spirits, talking about how nice it was to be cool in October. I regaled my husband with praise for having moved us. I actually said, “It’s such a relief to known that I am back in the land of diversity.” Phoenix had been far too awash in Aryan complexion.

Just then we hear the distant sound voices chanting. They were coming from the north. The words of the chant were indiscernible. But the sound was something like a nail gun rhythmically shooting nails into a wood post. They were accompanied by the sound of marching boots, coming ever closer. Then came the words. Words I that became more distinct as the sound approached, punctuated by the perseverating boots.

“Blood and Soil,” they shouted. “This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

Then the voices stilled. Nothing audible but the clomping of the boots. Stamping out a message as clearly articulated as the hateful slogans.

I froze. My recurring nightmare played in my head. Nazis have discovered where my mother ran to escape them. They have come to America to carry us back to the gas chambers.

The stomping feet grew louder. I could see a cloud arise as the boots kicked dust into the air. Then the cloud was pierced by a flock of disembodied white cones bobbing into town. Soon after by a flow of white-robed bodies. All moving in rhythm to the marching boots. When they were close enough for me to see the individual participants, I realized with horror that each of them had raised the mask up, so their faces were exposed. Expressionless faces. The chantrecommenced. Staring hatefully like the mesmerized mob seeking blood from the Frankenstein monster.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

They looked neither right nor left. The were as a single eye, focused on a goal or a sign only they could see. They squinted with resolute seriousness.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

“The kids,” I said to my husband. “We need to get home to the kids.”

“There are only a few,” he pointed out. “And they don’t seem to be headed toward the house.”

He was right. There were no more than twenty or so bodies. But they moved with the precision and the deliberateness of a single predator. And their presence, exaggerated by the metal on metal combined sound of the voices and the boots, dwarfed reality.

As a single entity, they turned into the parking lot of a strip mall. A strip mall owned by a Jewish owner, where rents were purported to be high. They chanted louder, but now they had turned their backs to us.

My husband touched my arm. “We should go,” he said.

I tried to move. But my body trembled so I had no strength in my legs. I sat on the ground and sobbed.

 

 

 

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I Got a Kick . . . At the Opera!

As a rule, I am not a big fan of musical theater. I want my mind engaged when I go to the theater, and the familiar tropes and clichés of most musicals work better than personal ohms to make me drift into mindlessness. There are exceptions to my taste aversion, the stellar standouts, which include anything by Stephen Sondheim, Rent, Roar of the Greasepaint, HAMILTON and a few others. But even as a director of educational theater, who helmed at least two musicals a year, I was hard to please.

Which is why I most often chose very difficult musicals for my students to perform – the very operatic Most Happy Fella and Sondheim’s dark and cynical Sweeney Todd, for example. I am a very tough customer. And I am not likely to trust local regional theater, wherever I might be.

Which is curious, considering that I lived for many years in the New Haven, CT, area, and I had access to some of America’s best regional theaters. I trusted Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford Stage, and Yale Repertory, whose productions I attended religiously. But except for one musical at Long Wharf that I rather liked (about an English teacher), I tended to head to New York when I wanted to check out a play for my kids or to see what was new in the musicals canon.

And that is how I failed to discover the Goodspeed Opera House.

Well, that is not exactly accurate. I knew about the Goodspeed.  I  had even been to the building and had walked the premises. But  I had never gone inside, had never seen a production.

Until last week.

My good friend and colleague Denise Lute was featured as the batty Mrs. Harcourt in Anything Goes, and I decided it was time to take the leap, convincing my best buddy to drive with me from New York to Haddam. Well, blow Gabriel, blow and ain’t it de-lovely! If Anything Goes is an example of what’s been going on out there at the Goodspeed, then I have been a fool. Thank goodness I have lived long enough to get past my prejudices and enjoy this epiphany.

Anything Goes was absolute perfection, from start to finish, a joy to behold and a revelation of phenomenal talent.

Which, as Denise pointed out over dinner, should not be a surprise. After all, everyone in the cast has a host of impressive credits. “My Kingsley (Kingsley Leggs, who plays Eli J. Whitney, Mrs. Harcourt’s boyfriend)”, she averred, “was in Color Purple, Sister Act, etc., David (Harris, who plays the romantic lead) is a hot (and I mean HOT) star in Australia, and Rashidra (Scott), well, she’s here because Beautiful let her take a leave of absence. She’s got a feature role in that one!”  High praise coming from Denise Lute, who works more than most actors I know, a veteran of the Actors’ Studio. Still, I would not have been so easily convinced. Anyone can make a resume sound far more impressive than it is.

Rashidra

Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney in Goodspeed Opera’s Anything Goes (photo courtesy of CT Post).

But the cast gels in ensemble synchronicity from the stimulating opener to the rousing finish. Rashidra Scott is in almost every scene and leads the ensemble in dancing that runs the gambit from tap to jazz to ballet to salsa with her fleet feet dancing in perfect alignment with her megavoice. She really stands out.

Because she practically carries the show. But honestly, there’s not a bad apple in this crate. Every single person in the cast sings, dances, acts. Even Trixie, the dog Denise’s character carries compulsively through most of the play, is remarkable, so mellow she could have convincingly played a stuffed animal.

Denise and Trixie

Cheeky (Trixie the Pomeranian) in the arms of Mrs. Harcourt (Denise Lute). Photo by Tim Cook/The Day

I would have preferred less mugging and ad-libbing by Stephen DeRosa, who plays Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #2, but that’s because I’m a writer (script sacrosanctity!) and a former acting teacher (be generous, babies; don’t steal the light); the crowd there loved him, and so he mugged harder and ad-libbed all the more vigorously.

To tell the truth, if I were to say to one person in the show “You’re the top,” it would be to choreographer Kelli Barclay. I haven’t seen dancing like this anywhere. The dance in this show was more than just a fun interlude. In many cases, the dance captured pieces of story that were not clearly elucidated or they underscored a subtext the audience could easily have missed. The book is simplicity itself, with no intricate story lines, no metaphorical messages to darken or clutter the story, but the characters might come off as stick figures or cartoons were it not for the choreography. Barclay’s choreography endows Reno Sweeny and Billy Crocker, and even Moonface Martin with a humanity that is not in the script, is not clear in the music.

One of the difficulties of a show like Anything Goes is that the vacuity of story and absence of characterization can leave the audience a bit numb. Even while they are having fun, they might be inclined to turn off a bit, to withhold investment in the people the actors are playing. Barclay’s dances ensure that the audience cares about all of them, even about the ensemble characters we hardly know at all.

Director Daniel Goldstein can take credit for opening a world and for making sure that all the elements of the production are of that world. The design of the set by Wilson Chin is simple but elegant, very old-school theatrical, with small revolves, wagons and flies providing a variety of sub-sets. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are adorable, respectful of the bodies they adorn and time-period-appropriate, in colors that enhance the set design. Lights, by Brian Tovar are unnoticeable and flawless, but sound was slightly lacking, as there were whole chunks of dialogue that were inaudible or indiscernible where I was sitting in the front left orchestra.

Best of all, what Goldstein has achieved, what directors hope for and too often miss, is a cast and crew that loves being together, loves making this show, loves Cole Porter, loves everything about being in Haddam on the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House. That’s remarkable. It’s hard to pull off a show that’s based on the music of a beloved song writer and refrain from making it more than it is or less than it can be. An American in Paris on Broadway very graphically proved that to me. No one had any fun in that show, at least on the day I saw it. And the writers and director, in adding tried dark drama to the simple storyline, muddied the waters and detracted from the beauty of the music. The actors were great ballet dancers but could not act, and the dancing told no story. The play was merely an exhibition, a total disappointment. And the antithesis of Anything Goes.

Which taught me a valuable lesson. I must lose all NYC snobbery. Theater in the boondocks –like it or not, folks, the Goodspeed Opera House is in the idyllic boondocks, on the banks of the CT River – can be well worth the requisite battle to reach it through horrific Connecticut (worst in summertime) traffic.

goodspeed

It’s too late to see this production of Anything Goes, which closed  June 16. But there will be other productions – check them out here. And be sure to watch for work by people like Rashidra Scott, Denise Lute, Daniel Goldstein, and Kelli Barclay.

Himself and Nora, an off-Broadway show about James and Nora Joyce, about which I was skeptical about until I realized it features Barclay’s choreography, sounds like a great prospect. There’s lots of subtext in that marriage to elucidate through dance. My guess is that it can’t miss.