Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: Michael Upward
The trailer from the original production of “Bend in the Road”
In Mary Martin’s autobiography she offered up the idea that everyone is only supposed to meet a certain number of people before the circle closes and you begin meeting the same people again – long after the initial contact. I cannot say if this theory holds any water, but I can say that it has led me to notice when people I have run into in one context become someone I later know in another.
One of those would have to be Benita Scheckel. When I sat down across the lunch table from her at my day job (I teach high school), she introduced herself as someone I had reviewed long before, when she was primarily known as a musical theater actress. Indeed, she had worked with one of the few local performers I have known on a more than professional level, Sylvia Lavoie Miller, whose wedding to my dear friend Richard, my high school boyfriend, was a highlight of my 20s. (Sylvia has since passed away. See this blog, October 2011: the picture there of Sylvia in costume came from Benita.)
Benita was our new chorus and drama teacher, and that is primarily how I have known her ever since. Still, it was obvious that a hunger, as yet unfulfilled, lived there as well. She would speak of the promise she made to herself in the midst of a tough childhood: that some day she would be on Broadway. There was always an air of wistfulness in knowing, though she was doing good work for kids who deserved it, that dream had never panned out.
Then, in August of 2012, I received an invitation to “Bend in the Road,” a musical based on the novel “Ann of Green Gables,” at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre in Pasadena. Actually, I was told that I had no choice but to be there. Benita had written a musical with friend Michael Upward, and she wanted to know what I thought.
The show was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and it was bare bones: a mix of professional and amateur performers, minimal sets (many involving projections of work by Benita’s art student daughter). Still, the seeds were there. It had the aura of something which just might work. (My review is in the archive from September 2012.) I was pleased for her, and told her I hoped it would have a life beyond that tiny stage. And that, I thought, was that.
But that girl with a Broadway dream wasn’t giving up. She, her writing partner, and her producer felt there was enough “there” there to send the thing to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it was accepted. Now Benita is getting some great traction. She was featured in the magazine of the National Education Association (the nationwide parent of her local union) http://neatoday.org/tag/benita-scheckel-anne-of-green-gables/, has started rehearsals, and reported yesterday that she was walking the streets of Broadway in a pair of killer heels.
Of course her time this summer is not all about the glamour. She’s in the midst of re-writes and adjustments. Her young star, Alison Woods, was part of the NY deal, but the rest of the cast is new, and is now directed not by Benita (who admits she only did so out of budgetary necessity) but by veteran NY director Benjamin Endsley Klein, giving a needed fresh and dispassionate view of what this show is, what it needs, and where it can go.
So, if you happen to be in New York this July, take the time to catch this one. I will be on the east coast roughly at that time, and if I can get into the city I just might. Who knows where the show will go from here. It might end up picked up for some form of New York run. It might end up on the regional, or semi-pro, or community stage. It might be gone after this summer. In any case, Benita Sheckel, the girl who dreamed of Broadway is there. That, in and of itself, is something nobody can ever take away.
What: “Bend in the Road” When: 8 p.m. July 18, 5 p.m. July 27, 1 p.m. July 20, 24 and 28 Where: PTC Performance Space, 555 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY How Much: $25 Info: http://www.nymf.org/tickets/2013-events/bendintheroad/
The run of this show has now been extended until October 14
Long ago I knew a woman who spent her youth working as an usher at the theater in Boston where an enormous number of now-famous Broadway musicals conducted their “out of town try-outs.” She used to tell fascinating stories about what these great works looked like when they were newborns, and how they changed during their run at that theater. Indeed, I also grew up with similar tales told by an original chorus member of “My Fair Lady.” Fascinating to consider such a thing in its stage of growing pains.
Now a brand new musical with much to recommend it has surfaced upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse. There, in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, one may meet “Bend in the Road,” a musical by Benita Scheckel and Michael Upward based upon the classic novel “Anne of Green Gables.” There are a few evidences of the same growing pains referred to above, but by and large this production shows great promise. One may be watching the birth of a hit.
The tale is the classic heart-warmer. An earnest and somewhat headstrong orphan girl lands at the door of two older, unmarried siblings who raise her. She develops a fast and enduring friendship with a neighbor girl, and goes head-to-head with the smartest boy in her one-room schoolhouse. As she grows and learns to be a part of her community, her essential good-heartedness rubs off on those around her – even the crusty, nosy widow-woman nearby who initially works to ruin her.
And all this potentially gooey stuff works in “Bend in the Road” due to a crisp script, taut direction, attractively on-point songs and an impressive lead. Indeed, it is the tinge of mischief and obstinacy in Alison Woods’ Anne which energizes the entire piece. This Anne operates from a sure conviction of her own rightness even when she’s not. You see it in her eyes, and that gives the piece teeth.
The songs also stand out. They are hummable, and some have considerable power. Indeed, I’d put “Kindred Spirits,” the song uniting Anne and her best buddy Diana, right up there with “For Good,” the signature song of the massive hit “Wicked.” It has a similar quality of both topicality and universality, and a similar pop-catchiness. Only one piece, the last before intermission, needs real work. Overly complex, it is an attempted fugue which becomes dissonant and somewhat unintelligible instead. Otherwise, it’s quite a score.
This is enhanced by a fine ensemble, who give heart and intensity to the music, and create details within the town in which Anne grows up. Christopher Callen warms to her work as Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who takes Anne in, though her vocal quality sometimes hints at flatness. Don Margolin provides the necessary warmth as Marilla’s soft-hearted brother. Barbara Niles finds a nice balance of heartache and self-righteousness as the snippy neighbor.
Add to these Melinda Porto’s charming Diana, and Christopher Higgins as the increasingly interesting and youthfully handsome Gilbert, add in a bevy of amusingly snippy school girls and bouncy boys, and you have a cheerful frame for the story.
As for staging, under Scheckel’s direction there is an attractive flow to the thing. Though very low-tech, this episodic tale is set in such a way that it moves from scene to scene with precision and energy, so the story never slows. The tiny stage is full, but not crowded, in part because everyone onstage is there with intentionality: they all have something to do, and someone to be.
Projected scenes using artwork by Anna Scheckel provide an effective essential set, along with quick-moving panels which cover the multitude of necessary locations. Indeed, only a roof-walking scene, worked out behind the projection scrim, is comparatively ineffective. The projector itself is seated too high, so the glow from its bulb, rather than aiming above the audience’s heads, hits some audience members in central seats right in the eyeball. Yet, these are easy to fix.
Past such nitpicky details, “Bend in the Road” works. The story is sweet, but not saccharine. The music proves catchy and interesting. Kevin Lee’s choreography feels organic to the time and characters. There is a cohesive vision at work here, and it shows. This just might be Broadway the old fashioned way: a tuneful show with endearing characters and a touching ending that will send you out smiling into the night. It is neither cutting edge, nor deep social commentary, but satisfying nonetheless. A little nip and tuck, and it may be ready for bigger things.
What: “Bend in the Road” When: Through October 7, 1 p.m. and 7p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 344-8846 or http://www.bendintheroadtickets.eventbrite.com