MetroStage’s Appealing Musical Glimpse Back to the Jazz Age

 

By David Siegel

Thursday, September 16, 2010   

 

A scorching summer can use some cooling down. So head-off for a splash of a jazz-age romantic musical with first-rate, cabaret style voices to delight and a three-piece band to add to the pleasure. Metro Stage’s "Glimpses of the Moon" is a relaxed production looking back to the Manhattan moneyed class in the whirling early 1920’s when everything was grand and swell. This is soft-edged entertainment like a shimmering water-color painting of moonlight reflecting off a rippling lake.

 

The musical is based upon a lesser-known work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton, famous for her unsettling social commentary. With a closely knit cast directed and choreographed in an unfussy style by David Marquez there is movement galore to flesh out a score of over 15 songs. With book and lyrics by Tajlei Levis, music by John Mercurio and musical direction of Darius Smith, the foibles of the rich are mocked in a light-hearted manner through two acts and multiple scenes. There may not be a single stand-out song but the score carries the show along winningly. "Glimpses of the Moon" turns on two charming but flat broke friends who meet cute. They devise a business deal to keep up with their apparently happy rich friends; marry each other "not for love, but for money, until we find love." They will sell off their wedding gifts to live a lush life awaiting that someone to genuinely love. The scheme, of course, goes array as honest affection grows giving the show its plot twists and glimmer.

 

The six-member cast is exceedingly likable. Each has a turn in the spotlight to deliver a solo. The two lovers, Natascia Diaz (2009 Helen Hayes award, Outstanding Lead in a Musical) and Sam Ludwig each have clear voices and a delivery that lets the lyrics and the melody sink in without bombast. Diaz reaches beyond ballad work to be comically nuanced with "Cigars," a song about gifting away objects that is reprised several times. The duets between the two are polished and soulful. Diaz has a wide range of facial expressions to add critical visual aspects to her work.

 

Helen Hayes award nominee Gia Mora as a jaunty posh living married woman is a joy to behold. Without a sound uttered she can power herself with a wingspan that reaches for the heavens and fingers dancing about tipped in fiery red nail polish. Her kiss-off song to her husband, "Letters to Nelson" is choreographed to show her totally supple movements. Lauren "Coco" Cohn brings spirited comic virtuously as a scene-stealing educated, matronly young woman who finds some sensuality. Her enormous round eyes pop out as if made of plastic and she had just seen some Marx Brothers movies. Helen Hayes Award recipient Stephen F. Schmidt’s poignant out-of-nowhere rendering of "Tell Her I’m Happy" is his anthem to a lost marriage. Matthew A. Anderson takes a generally arch approach but his sarcastic chirper rendition of "Terrible News" at the top of Act Two is a hoot.

 

The set designed by Daniel Pinha has a stylish look; done up with visual details columns in a French blue color scheme giving a sense of luxury to the intimate MetroStage decor. From a checkerboard floor, large columns and moveable set pieces there is real weight and some depth depicted. Nothing is flimsy. The three-piece band composed of piano, woodwind/reeds and drums is part of the set at audience right. The luxury look is carried forward with the radiant costume design especially for the women who are often enough bedecked in shimmering dresses and sparkling jewels while the band members are outfitted in handsome tuxedoes.

 

Glimpses of the Moon was first performed on Monday evenings in 2008-2009 in the Oak Room, a cabaret space in the Algonquin Hotel, New York City. A unique aspect of the production is a scene that takes place in the Oak Room cabaret setting with an alternating solo performer over the run of the production.

 

 



 

Glimpses of the Moon

 

By Gary McMillan

September 17, 2010

 

Pop, fizz, deliriously good. Mash up the sensibilities of Gatsby and Thoroughly Modern Millie; pour over jazz-kissed show tunes laced with interesting harmonies (John Mercurio); stir in a witty book and lyrics (Tajlei Levis) — especially dazzling when cross-talking lyrics float on the intricate score; and before you can say, “Gilded Age” or “Roaring Twenties,” you have Metro Stage’s ‘ champagne cocktail ‘ season opener, Glimpses of the Moon, a romantic musical comedy based on the Edith Wharton novel.

 

The story revolves around penniless Susy Branch (Natascia Diaz, headlining a talented cast of seven) who is having a madcap (if not care free) existence living off the largess of her socialite friends, while longing for a nest egg of her own. For pals Ellie Vanderlyn (Gia Mora) and Ursula Gillow (Lauren “Coco” Cohn), no dinner party is complete without a sprinkling of guests outside their income bracket and/or social circle to add interest and amusement. Susy is on tap to demonstrate the latest dance craze. Ursula has scholar Nick Lansing (Sam Ludwig) in tow. His specialty is antiquities, but Ursula couldn’t be bothered to know her potters from her poets (providing a slight hint of Cohn’s comedic gifts in the first of her three roles). Like Susy, Nick only can pursue his research on expeditions financed by wealthy dilettantes who are more interested in plundering relics than preserving them (a five thousand year old earthenware pots can be repurposed as a charming backyard bird bath).

 

When Susy and Nick are thrown together, they lament their common bond of dependency. All would be swell if they could each “marry up.” But single girls of a certain age are often excluded from fashionable parties and the best homes, whereas married couples are asked everywhere. In a fun duet, “The Proposal,” Nick suggests a marriage of convenience. Susy cozies up to the idea with glee, almost as giddy as Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett when she realizes where her next meal – literally – might be coming from. It’s wedding bells for Nick and Susy, and they are off on a year long quest to find wealthy mates while residing in a series of accommodations provided by their network of friends and benefactors with expenses covered by hocking the wedding presents along the way.

 

Several subplots are cleverly interwoven into the story as well. Ellie provides summer lodging to Susy and Nick as cover for own summer dalliance with a lover who is even more wealthy than her husband Nelson (Stephen F. Schmidt). Susy’s friend Streffy (Matthew A. Anderson) is smitten with her but has limited financial resources himself, being way down the succession totem pole in the aristocratic Strefford family. Finally, Coral Hicks (another Lauren Cohn role) – a character echoing such iconic roles as Agnes Gooch and Zelda Gilroy – enters decked out in explorer gear like some demented National Geographic cover girl. She is determined to bag Nick, married or not.

 

Natascia Diaz’s talent has graced Broadway and off-Broadway productions and garnered several regional awards (including the Helen Hayes for her performance in Metro Stage’s ROOMS, a rock romance). As Susy, she is bright and beautiful, a triple threat of acting, singing and dancing talent, enchanting in the romantic scenes but equally as adept at comedy of the vintage madcap variety. Gia Mora embodies sophistication, but with enough brass beneath the class to add an interesting edge to the philandering Ellie Vanderlyn. As she sings the text of letters sent to her husband, designed to make her husband believe she actually is at their summer home by lamenting the domestic drudgery of running a household and managing the servants, she coaxes every laugh with a subtle look, gesture or turn of phrase. She’s a real minx with a fox stole as well.

 

Cohn fits the bill as society matron and maid, but pulls out all the stops when playing Coral (“Take a Chance on Me”) Hicks. In one scene, she tackles the song “The Glories of Greece” and wrestles it to the floor by shear determination, and manages to send the audience into roaring laughter with her rendering of the word “unearth.” She’s equally hilarious in a scene where she gets a makeover under the direction of Ellie, who is more than willing to show her a thing or two about stealing a husband. Unlike the classic setup where the ugly duckling removes her glasses, lets down her hair and, voilà, transforms into a swan, Coral stumbles around blind as a bat trying not to fall off her high heels.

 

The male trio also deliver excellent performances. Sam Ludwig makes a very dashing leading man, deftly making his way through a somewhat problematic role which has him jumping into an arranged marriage while also assuming the role of moral compass for the couple. But what is madcap comedy without the human foibles and glaring contradictions. Matthew A. Anderson as WinthropStreffyStrefford turns on a dime from good-hearted buddy to stuffy upper crust when three of his relatives perish in a disastrous regatta – his ship comes in because theirs go down.  Anderson can’t help flying into a joyous jig amid the mourners at the funeral to the very funny song “Terrible News.” Stephen F. Schmidt as Ellie’s deceived and abandoned husband, Nelson, fills the role with pathos in his standout moment of song, “Tell Her I’m Happy,” serving as the evenings most poignant object lesson that money cannot buy happiness.

 

One last performer rounds out the cast. When the estranged couple Susy and Nick have an awkward meeting with their new attachments in a supper club, a cabaret singer suggest in song – “Right Here, Right Now” – that they patch up their differences. Glimpses was originally performed Monday nights in the Oak Room Supper Club in the Algonquin Hotel, so it’s only natural to have a scene set there. Metro Stage has arranged for three divas to rotate in the role of the cabaret singer, Lori A. Williams (who brought down the house on opening night), Tracy McMullan and Roz White.

 

For an intimate show, the production values are wonderful. The set design (Daniel Pinha) in blue and white, complete with crystal chandelier, is the hallmark of elegance, namely simplicity. Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting design complements the sets whether suggesting the warm glow of a sunset or perking up a party atmosphere. Lisa Zinni’s costumes –she’s assembled enough to give Neiman Marcus a run for its money – capture the glamour of the era with evening gowns,  cocktail dresses, a wedding dress, and scarves, furs and other finery, including Coral’s tomb-raider ensemble and a sporty sailor suit for Susy (I can now picture Natascia Diaz as Reno Sweeney). The gents are also dressed to the nines.

 

Of course, there would be no beautiful music without the terrific three-piece band: Darius Smith, both musical director and conductor, on keyboard, Brent Birckhead on woodwind/reeds, and Greg Holloway on percussion. Steve Baena’s sound design ensures that voice and instruments blend and fall clear as day on the audiences’ ears.

 

If this production is any indication, Glimpses of the Moon will find its way into the repertoires of regional professional and community theatres across the country.

 

 



 

Moon Shine: With the new musical Glimpses of the Moon, Alexandria's MetroStage puts on a dazzling, transporting show

 

By Doug Rule

September 23, 2010

 

Marry for money? Why not? If one marries up, life can be that much better.

 

That, at least, is the guiding philosophy of Susy Branch, lead character in the new old-fashioned musical Glimpses of the Moon, now enjoying its World Premiere at Alexandria's MetroStage. In Branch's 1920s America, the benefits that accrue from a marriage -- not just wedding gifts but also invitations to high-society events -- keep on giving long after the ceremony.

 

Based on a 1922 novel by Edith Wharton, Glimpses of the Moon crackles with wit and barbed cultural references. Writer Tajlei Levis embellishes Wharton's satiric tale by poking a little fun at some of the dated gender dynamics at play, and certainly at the cliché that money can't buy you love. Oh, but money can help love along.

 

Glimpses of the Moon also confirms that real love is blind and can overcome financial hurdles -- and also that new, quality theater isn't just the preserve of the better-known, better-funded and better-located institutions.

 

MetroStage may be housed in a glorified tin barn, tucked away in a bland, almost barren part of Alexandria. But expectations can be deceiving. This unassuming company certainly knows how to put on a dazzling, transporting show.

 

In this case, MetroStage transports us to the Jazz Age high society, where strivers Suzy (Natascia Diaz) and Nick Lansing (Sam Ludwig) meet at a Manhattan brownstone and hash out a plan to marry. There is obvious chemistry between the two from the start, but Suzy, especially, can't see it for the dollar signs in her eyes.

 

She's transfixed by all the lavish wedding gifts the Lansings will earn from their rich friends, which they can then pawn, living off the earnings for a good year or so. By then, they can each find a wealthy suitor to get hitched to. Of course love complicates the scheme, as does the arrival of wealthy suitors, literally begging for their respective hands in marriage.

 

Glimpses of the Moon drags a bit in spots, and John Mercurio's very contemporary but not terribly memorable score, serviceably brought to life by a three-piece band, doesn't hasten the proceedings. It's often both buoyant and plodding at nearly the same time, such as in the opening company number. But Lisa Zinni's sumptuous costume designs will captivate you. Zinni helps make high society living look as appealing as it should.

 

Also richly aiding the story, making it glow, is a strong cast. Particular praise is due Diaz, a New York actress who won a Helen Hayes Award for her last stint at MetroStage (ROOMS, a rock romance). Diaz, whose voice calls to mind Bernadette Peters, has the star power to suggest we'll be seeing and hearing a lot more from her.

 

That verdict solidifies even more when you learn that Diaz only assumed the lead role just a week or so before the musical opened earlier this month. You'd never know she hadn't been rehearsing the role from the get-go. On that score, Lauren Cohn is perhaps even more impressive. She only joined the cast the last week of rehearsals to assume Diaz's former roles -- yes, roles, plural.

 

Cohn is such a professional, she not only acts as if she's been at all three comedic roles as long as the rest of the cast, she even steals the show as Coral Hicks, a wealthy intellectual obsessed with wooing Nick.

 

''Until we find love, we'll have a lovely time,'' goes a line from the show. The nuance in that statement perfectly captures the feeling you'll have leaving the theater, stepping out into the moonlight, preparing to head back to the hustle and bustle.

 

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Glimpses of the Moon

 

By Susan Berlin

 

Glimpses of the Moon, the "Jazz Age musical" receiving its world premiere production at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, is a slight but charming piece of work, worth seeking out because of its richly talented cast—two members of which had the task of learning their roles on very short notice.

 

The musical by Tajlei Levis (book and lyrics) and John Mercurio (music), based on a novel by Edith Wharton, examines—in a more lighthearted way than such other Wharton works as The House of Mirth—the dilemma that faced an early 20th-century woman born into society but short of money. She could either marry a rich man, regardless of what else he had to offer, or live as what Susy Branch (Natascia Diaz) calls a "parasite" in the homes of wealthy friends.

 

The year is 1922; the setting, a world of elaborate vacation "cottages" and glittering New York penthouses. Susy and her friend Nick Lansing (Sam Ludwig), a historian and aspiring novelist who pays the bills by leading private tours of ancient Greek sites, set the plot in motion by banding together in their respective searches for a husband and a patron. Their plan: marry each other and live well off the proceeds of their generous friends' wedding gifts as they seek out more likely prospects. The surprises come from the moral quandaries Susy and Nick have to confront as they navigate the unfamiliar currents of acquisition, propriety, and even love.

 

Diaz, who received the Helen Hayes Award for her performance in Rooms... a rock romance at MetroStage, took over the role of Susy when the original performer had vocal problems and had to leave the cast. She may not be ideally cast as a post-debutante taking her first independent steps, but her presence is so assured and her voice so strong that it doesn't really matter. She also partners well with the boyish Ludwig.

 

The rest of the cast includes Gia Mora as a duplicitous socialite; Stephen F. Schmidt as her stodgy but loving husband; Matthew A. Anderson as a louche minor English aristocrat; and Lauren "Coco" Cohn, a bubbly singing actress making her Washington area debut, in the three roles Diaz had originally played—most notably a tweedy young woman who could be the rich cousin of Agnes Gooch from Mame.

 

The songs are pleasant if evanescent, occasionally derivative (a distracting bit of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" wanders through the overture) and a good enough fit with Levis' witty book. Director-choreographer David Marquez makes the most of the theater's small stage, and musical director Darius Smith keeps things lively as part of a three-piece onstage band.

 

 



 

There's considerable fizz in this Wharton-meets-Astaire/Rogers musical

 

By Bob Mondello

September 17, 2010

 

No Champagne, No Gain: For the most part, this Jazz Age musical has great fizz.

 

Glimpses of the Moon, a new Jazz Age musical based on the novel penned by Edith Wharton right after she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, may be less than the sum of its parts at MetroStage in Alexandria. But oh, those shimmering parts: sparkling rhinestone-in-the-rough Natascia Diaz as a penniless, sweetly amoral flapper who can kick up her heels at anatomically unlikely angles but has never learned to waltz; Sam Ludwig as the equally penniless, slightly-less-amoral anthropologist who teams up with her in a pawn-the-wedding-presents scam that can only go awry should they inadvertently fall in love; Lauren “Coco” Cohn, who giddily channels Ruth Buzzi (ask your parents) as a pop-eyed, anthropologist-smitten (“speak to me, in Greek to me”) heiress in desperate need of a makeover; Gia Mora as a slinky, silk-swathed slattern who’s just the gal to give her that makeover; Matthew A. Anderson tapping up a storm as an impoverished earl-in-waiting who is three cousins removed from his title; and Stephen F. Schmidt as a clueless rich guy who’s never more appealing than when he’s hiding his anguish from an ex-wife who doesn’t give a damn. All pretty splendid, if not always ideally cast (the plot would have more tension if the leading man were Shrek-ish, his competition handsome rather than the other way ’round). But that’s a quibble, and considering that director David Marquez had to get the show up on its feet and dancing, with fully a third of the cast arriving halfway through rehearsals, let me just withdraw it. Performances are hardly Glimpses of the Moon’s only charms. Composer John Mercurio has penned some appropriately bouncy ’20s-ish tunes (along with some less appropriate power ballads that could only hail from decades later). And Tajlei Levis has framed them in a pleasantly smart-ass libretto that mixes musical comedy directness (“you need a husband in order to find a better one”) with James Joyce jests (“omitting punctuation doesn’t make a book modern, just hard to read”). This does not, of course, even remotely capture the tone of Wharton’s novel (sample sentence: “It was of the essence of the adventure that, after her one brief visit to his lodgings, he should have kept his promise and not tried to see her again”), but the show was designed to suit its first venue—the Oak Roam of New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where Dorothy Parker and her buddies gathered for roundtable quippery—and it’s generally fun in performance. The show’s chief drawback is that it wants to tug at heartstrings, but traffics almost exclusively in emotional shorthand, whereas Wharton had time in her novel to have her principals change their minds about principles. On stage, characters who’ve been blithely scamming rich folks all evening develop scruples at such authorially convenient moments, and with such logic-challenging abruptness in the second act, that the show starts to seem a Glimpses of the Moon for the Slightly Misbegotten, when it has aspired until then—for the most part with considerable fizz—to be a latter-day Astaire/Rogers vehicle.

 

 



 

MetroStage production gives ‘Glimpses’ of the Gilded Age

 

By Jolene Munch Cardoza

September 21, 2010   

 

If you’ve ever visited Newport, R.I., and frolicked among the grand summer “cottages” that dot the jagged New England coastline, then you’ve dreamt of spending leisurely summers by the sea, drenched in the finest trappings money can buy. Once boasted of as the summertime “playground for the rich,” Newport lavishly hosted the wealthiest of American society at the height of the Gilded Age — one stroll along shady Bellevue Avenue and you’re mingling with the Vanderbilts and the Astors, scheduling tea and croquet matches. It’s a fantasy that’s easily indulged in such a romantic town.

 

Geography aside, who hasn’t imagined life among the posh and pampered, draped in furs and jewels? It’s a world curiously familiar to Susy and Nick, the two broke protagonists in Tajlei Levis and John Mercurio’sGlimpses of the Moon,” an irrepressible ode to happiness and the entrepreneurial spirit in us all.

 

Based on the 1922 novel by Edith Wharton, the musical version of “Glimpses” grants mere snapshots of the glamour and gore inside the lives of the upper crust at the beginning of the 20th century, an alluring “expose” that allows our venturesome young couple to scheme a way to ensure plush financial means, and thus, their freedom. What better way to skimp off of their wealthy socialite friends than to, say, get married? “Not for love, but for money” and all that jazz, the two plot to wed and pawn off their wedding gifts to pay the rent, just until they can wrangle more “suitable” mates with maisons. And as fate and Edith Wharton would have it, naturally, they never planned on falling in love.

 

It’s an intriguing construct, and Wharton’s searing social commentary is not lost in a whirl of strong musical acumen. At times wonderfully witty and whimsical, “Glimpses” retains its histrionic bite through David Marquez’s shrewd management of timing and temperament. Once the action moves past the awkward opening number, overstaged with manic energy by Marquez, the music is sparkling and the jazz smolders with fluid music direction from Darius Smith. There’s not a weak performance in the ensemble cast, including Natascia Diaz and Sam Ludwig as the conspiring duo who steal more than just the other’s heart. But it’s Lauren “Coco” Cohn’s zany interpretations of three distinct characters that ultimately steal the show.

 

Unfortunately, as with most conventions of music theater, there is a tendency toward the sanitized. It’s 1922, but there’s nary a mention of the war or international politics, the economy, or industry other than the passing fancy of an occasional syncopated lyric. Everyone’s living it up on the cusp of the Jazz Age, yet the actors are overamplified and the champagne flutes are empty. Still, there’s an inherent likability in “Glimpses” and whatever it may lack in style, it more than makes up for in substance.

 

“Love and common sense never go together,” claims a padded suitor in MetroStage’s giddy and game production, a lovely tribute to “modern” matrimony and the charming chicanery of the wealthy, both old and new.

 

 



 

High society, low-life schemes and love

 

By Jordan Wright

Friday, October 1, 2010

 

MetroStage’s worldwide premiere of “Glimpses of the Moon” is based on social commentator Edith Wharton’s witty and incisive novel of the same title. It focuses on a hilarious hustle set in Manhattan and the posh watering holes of Maine, the Hamptons and Newport, Rhode Island during the rip-roaring Jazz Age.

 

Down-on-her-luck flapper Suzy Branch and brainy, but flat-busted Harvard archaeologist Nick Lansing have caviar tastes on a bathtub gin budget. Together they concoct a calculated subterfuge to platonically wed, amassing enough pawn-worthy wedding swag and visits to the palatial digs of their well-heeled friends to last an entire year. During that time the unscrupulous but adorable duo expect to divorce and marry up. 

 

But, here’s the expected rub: They fall madly in love with each other.

 

Notwithstanding the predictability of such familiar characters, this fast-paced musical is a clever, sophisticated and captivating dish served up with a huge scoop of humor. 

 

The music, on par with Sondheim’s best, supported the plot with 16 dazzling numbers, like, “Cigars,” a moralistic musing on whether or not to pawn a host’s box of Havana cigars. It’s a conundrum filled with catchy lines. In the song their host, Streffy, retorts, “You drank gin from my bar. Why not take my cigars!”

 

“Dinner Party with Friends,” a jaunty ensemble piece, channels Noel Coward and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his East Egg swells with a riotous seated dance as guests chronicle the social pressures of pretense and how to maintain it.

 

Outstanding are Helen Hayes award-winner Natascia Diaz as the spunky and sensitive Suzy, whose singing and dancing are pitch perfect; Gia Mora, as the well-married seductress, Ellie Vanderlyn, who brims with polish and stylish snap; Stephen Schmidt, as the suave and cuckolded Nelson Vanderlyn, who tackles the part so effortlessly it seems as though the part was written just for him; and Lauren “Coco” Cohn a veteran of “Legally Blonde 2” and “Desperate Housewives,” who as a hugely talented comedic character actor plays three roles including the awkward heiress, Coral Hicks, and the conspiratorial maid. 

 

Another winning performance comes from Matthew Anderson as WinthropStreffyStrefford. Anderson is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed version of Nathan Lane who tears up the stage with his hoofing and vamping. Look for him to return in MetroStage’sA Broadway Christmas Carol” beginning its run on November 18.

 

Although Sam Ludwig’s portrayal of Nick Lansing appeared a bit tentative in the frothy pace, he ditched his hesitancy in his duets, and his pure voice was a perfect harmonic counterpoint.

 

The catchy songs are supported by the cool flourishes of veteran musicologist and pianist, Darius Smith; woodwind/reed doubler, Brent Birkhead who this summer gained recognition from Downbeat Magazine as Best Blues/Pop/Rock soloist; and D.C. native Greg Holloway on percussion, who recently backed Pam Parker at Washington’s Blues Alley.

 

Most recently the partnership of John Mercurio’s music and Tajlei Levis’s book and lyrics had only showcased their numbers at New York’s famed Algonquin Hotel, where it was performed in the Oak Room over a period of several months. The hotel, which was the daily lunch spot of the illustrious “Round Table,” a coterie of elite writers, editors and wry wits who gathered there in the ’20s, has a cabaret where “Glimpses of the Moon” was first shown and explains the appearance in the second act of the dazzling torch singer, played by Rosalind White.