This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
If Winston-Salem is Black Theater Holy Ground every other year, then New York City is Theater Holy Ground 24/7/365.
A recent pilgrimage revealed what some of you already know and others might find surprising: There are lots of artistic connections between the two cities.
While attending the American Theatre Critics Association’s annual New York Conference last week, I saw five Broadway shows with local connections and — bonus round — had dinner with a Metropolitan opera singer from Advance and lunch with a costume designer from Raleigh.
Howell Binkley, who grew up in Winston-Salem and went to Reynolds High School, designed the lighting for two shows currently on Broadway: “Come From Away” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.” Paul Tazewell, a UNC School of the Arts alumnus, designed the costumes for “Ain’t Too Proud.”
Both designers received Tony nominations for their work on these shows, but the awards went to others. In 2016, Binkley won Best Lighting Design in a Musical, and Tazewell won Best Costume Design in a Musical for the groundbreaking “Hamilton,” which also won nine other Tonys that year, including Best Musical.
Jimmie “JJ” Jeter, a Winston-Salem native who went to UNCSA his senior year in high school, is currently in “Hamilton” as a standby for Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Lafayette/Jefferson, Laurens/Philip and King George.
“Ain’t Too Proud” is a gorgeous jukebox musical that tells the story of The Temptations, the male singing group that started in the 1960s and is still performing today under the leadership of Otis Williams, the surviving Temp who owns the name.
Better still, it tells the stories of the individuals in the group — the qualities that made them great performers and the flaws that eventually brought most of them low. Their complex personal stories are told with nuance, neither understated nor melodramatic.
Their sound encompasses R&B, soul, funk and psychedelic soul. They had four No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and 14 R&B No. 1 singles. Think “My Girl” (1964), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1966), and “I Wish It Would Rain” (1967), and the funky “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972) with its four-minute instrumental introduction.
The show strikes an admirable balance between feeling and flash. The dancing is juiced up to modern musical pizzazz; the Temps weren’t quite that slick, although they were consummate showmen.
Joshua Morgan, a UNCSA alumnus, plays Shelly Berger, the group’s ambitious and hands-on manager, with Berger a creative consultant for the show. Tom Hulce is a producer, and Ryan O’Garais associate lighting designer, both UNCSA alums.
I’m reserving the word “spectacle” for one show only: “Moulin Rouge.”
Sensual, scintillating, it slithers into your awareness, leaving no sequin unturned. It opens with dancers on opposite ends of the stage on balcony level — one male, one female — writhing and posing to hypnotic, tango-tinged music. This is the pre-show, and the numbers of performers grow until the stage is full and the show bursts into full-throttle singing and dancing.
The first number, happily, is Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” performed in a blaze of glory by a quartet of chorus “girls” and the ensemble. It is truly glorious. Sadly, it is one of few songs sung to completion; most are just snippets of songs woven into dialogue. Other fully sung songs include Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” and Katie Perry’s “Firework.”
Karen Olivo’s Satine is effectively vulnerable and venal by turns. Aaron Tveit as Christian is the perfect American poet in Paris. Danny Burstein is divinely decadent as Harold Zidler, a Barnum and Bailey cabaret host. Tam Mutu is a dastardly Duke of Monroth, taking a especially roguish turn on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
All the production values — choreography, sets, costumes, sound design — are over the top. As is the acting. This is circus big top on Broadway.
A bounteous feast for the senses, “Moulin Rouge,” nevertheless, fails to satisfy. It thrills. It titillates, but its sincerity is too often crushed by excessive everything.
Paloma Garcia-Lee, a UNCSA alumna who returns to the school from time to time to teach workshops, is in the ensemble. And what an ensemble it is. As is often the case for me, it’s the dancers who make it worth the price of admission. These are the hardest-working and most fun to watch people in show business.
Speaking of working hard, Garcia-Lee had a featured role in “Fosse/Verdon” on FX earlier this year, and took a break from “Moulin Rouge” to film “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg this past summer.
She plays Graziella, a role she played when she was a high-school senior at UNCSA. The film will be out December of 2020.
(See Part 2 of “Connections” in next week’s Arts section of the Winston-Salem Journal.)