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"Not Another Christmas Letter!" Isn’t Your Typical Holiday Musical

The Nightmare Before Christmas
isn’t just a movie. It’s what you get when you open your mailbox and find one of those long, drawn out Christmas letters, sometimes even from someone you like, that go into great detail about what has transpired in their lives – month by month by month by month.

So, even though the holiday season got off to an early start just before Halloween, it’s really getting humbug crazy now. The perfect anecdote is Stomping Ground Theatre and Gwen Arment’s “holiday” gift to all the Scrooges out there: Not Another Christmas Letter! – by Laura Bergquist (music) and Paul Cozby (book, lyrics, additional music).

Performances run through December 20 at historic Metro Baptist Church (410 West 40th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues – across from Port Authority Bus Terminal).

Cozby describes this anti-holiday romp as “an original musical comedy unfolding in a series of comic and poignant vignettes. Four actors bring 46 characters to life, celebrating everything that drives us crazy about Christmas . . . and why we love it anyway. It’s fun and, yes, actually, heartwarming.”

NotAnotherChristmasLetterCastBergquist music directed Allegiance, and Jane Eyre; Off Broadway’s Daddy Long Legs and Jane Austen’s: Emma, as well as Sense and Sensibility at Chicago Shakespeare and Old Globe.

Former journalist Cozby is communications director of production company Fellowship for Performing Arts. He was associate producer of Rooms: A Rock Romance (directed by Scott Schwartz) and worked with Bert Draesel and Nancy Leeds on The Dancing Princess, a musical based on Judith Gwyn Brown’s children's book -- a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill Center National Musical Theater Workshop.

The actors are Laura Darrell (Vineyard/Signature’s OCC-nominated Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce); Rob Richardson (Clinton; Jekyll and Hyde, revival; A Tale of Two Cities); Bret Shuford (Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour; Amazing Grace, Disney’s The Little Mermaid); and Catherine Walker (a Phoebe in the Tony-winning Best Musical, A Gentleman ‘s Guide to Love and Murder, the Ragtime revival, Mary Poppins).

Nick Demos is director/choreographer, with music direction by Brett Kristofferson.

Stomping Ground is a non-profit “creating a home away from home for the socially conscious - the creative artist who wants to make the world a better place, the writer whose work needs to be heard; and the individual who faces discrimination because of skin color, gender, sexual identity, economic status or religion.” Arment has segued from a musical stage career to teaching master classes and co-producing (including the Tony-nominated Come from Away).

Tickets for Not Another Christmas Letter! are $25 and available at, where you’ll find performance schedules
and more information.


Gypsy of the Year Competition Collects Over $5 Million for Health & Outreach Services

The 29th edition of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, held December 4 and 5 at the historic New Amsterdam Theatre, home of Disney’s Aladdin, shattered even the wildest expectations. A mind-boggling record amount of $5,609,211 -- $379,545 more than last December’s record tally. Thanks go to the hundreds of tireless volunteers in the Bucket Brigade and casts of 56 Broadway, Off Broadway, and touring shows  and their amazingly generous audiences during the six –week fundraising period.

"This event, like our annual Easter Bonnet and Broadway Bares shows, honors the tireless work of the ensemble singers and dancers in theater, known as ‘gypsies,’" says BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola. "For two performances, more than 200 of Broadway’s and touring shows’ gypsies and special guests perform in celebration of the donations raised. The annual largesse of theatergoers is truly awesome."

This year’s show was a big as any Broadway must-see with a huge contingent of pit singers, dressers, and costume, hair, make-up teams, and stage managers.
The grand total was announced at the end of Tuesday’s matinee performance by Meteor Shower’s Laura Benanti, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos, who put on a virtual 20-minute slapstick and comic “bitch fest” routine that could easily lead to the dynamic foursome starring in a TV sit-com. Obviously, from Schumer and Benanti’s backbiting antics and the deadpan cut-ups of Shamos and Key, this is one cast that really gets along. Schumer and Key are making their Broadway debuts.

GYPSY17The quartet also presented the awards to the top fundraisers and for best original performance. Returning to host for his 10th consecutive year was musical theater rapid-fire speaking everyman Seth Rudestsky, who again kept the packed house in stitches with his “deconstructions” of big musical numbers and those that sang [or talked] them.

Gypsy of the Year got off to a rousing start with School of Rock’s growing-taller-by-the-minute dynamo belter Amadi Chapata, Lea DeLaria, Cady Huffman, Lacretta, and Shakina Nayback headlining an amazingly energetic ensemble of 20 dancers and 12 off-stage vocalists celebrating the centennial of women gaining the right to vote in New York. The number was directed by Tony-winner Huffman and choreographed by Lorna Ventura.
Tony-nominee for Best Musical Come From Away company members took top honors for best onstage presentation with a self-deprecating journey through Tony-nominated choreographer Kelly Devine’s efforts to create choreography for actors who couldn’t dance. The zinger segue had standbys doppleganging for the cast members and doing choreographic acrobatics and high jinks. The sequence was written and directed by cast member Sharon Wheatley, with chorography by Richard J. Hinds.
The true spirit of the Christmas season was evoked by runner-up Aladdin, led by cast members Major Attaway (the new genie), Juwan Crawley, swing Angelo Soriano, and Deonte Warren sharing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” from Carols for a Cure 2017, the  community’s annual holiday CD benefiting BC/EFA [available with previous season’s CDs at], a soul-stirring, Yule-inspired compilation, that had some in tears, by Soriano, with additional lyrics from Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (original Genie, now portraying Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette in Hamilton). Soriano also directed, music directed, and choreographed.
Start-to-finish, there was spectacular dancing and one dazzling moment after another. Especially memorable were members of the Cats company lived far beyond their nine lives and transitioned into feline zombies. Jessica Hendy wrote and directed, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rod Temperton (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), pianist Ming Aldrich-Gan, and Hendy.

Who says you can’t dance and sing live? Certainly not two-time Tony-nominee Charlotte d’Amboise, in the top echelon of our great dancers, brought the house down with her tale of being in Chicago and Sweet Charity at the same time, the latter as stand-by for Christina Applegate, who she was assured would never miss a performance -- and then proceeded to break her foot.

A large contingent of actors representing touring shows number knocked the audience out with a standout number, directed and choreographed by Chaz Wolcott, to Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain” from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.

Hamilton’s Donald Webber Jr., accompanied by six dancers and guitarist Nate Brown, led a stirring mashup of Tupac Shakur’s “Thugz Mansion” and Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come,” which explored police brutality and poverty, and the hope for a peaceful tomorrow. 

It wasn’t all razzle-dazzle. Attaway and Come from Away’s Chad Kimball, Caesar Samayoa, and Sharon Wheatley spoke on BC/EFA’s nearly three decades of harnessing the theatrical community’s innate ability to overcome obstacles to help  all races, all faiths; and finding the strength in united opposition to bigotry, intolerance, and governmental indifference across the country.

They noted how the Broadway Cares and the Actors Fund collaboration provides a safety net of social services across the country for those in the entertainment industry. 

BC/EFA has provided more than $90- million in support to the Actors Fund’s HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Dancers’ Resource, addiction and recovery services, Artists Health Insurance Resource Center, and the Friedman Health Center for the Performing Arts, the only health center in NYC designed to address the primary and specialty needs of those in the entertainment industry and performing arts.

GypsyFinaleHamilton’s Javier Muñoz recalled how the theater community came together for the first Gypsy competition in 1989, “The AIDS epidemic had taken a staggering number of people in our community alone. People infected and affected by the virus lived in fear and desperate sadness, too often isolated and alone. No one had not been deeply affected in some way. For those too young to know anything of the disease other than today’s medications and services, count yourselves lucky.
It was, indeed, worse than anything you can imagine.”

He noted the frustration and anger about the epidemic was so widespread that something was needed to “remember what brought us all together. So we observed a moment of silence.” For 29 years, that moment has been to reflect, said Muñoz  “on those we love who cannot be here and those whose voices still cannot be heard – not just because of AIDS but for a multitude of challenges.” He stated that many would not be here today without the lifesaving, life-altering support of Broadway Cares; and that many of the most vulnerable are worried about their rights, access to social services, and family and community’s safety. 

The moment of silence is in contemplation of lives lost to and affected by HIV/AIDS, is included in every BC/EFA event.

Muñoz closed, stating, “Let us now, together, take a moment to recommit to reaching beyond ourselves. To stand with those who need us most – and with each other – able, willing, and as ever, be compelled to do our part, however small, to ensure that all are embraced in times of crisis, isolation and injustice. No one is alone.”

"Annie" Gets Holly Jolly Revival at Paper Mill Playhouse


The holiday season has arrived for Paper Mill Playhouse audiences with a gaily-wrapped Christmas present under a tinseled tree. It’s the sumptuous revival of Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning Best Musical Annie.  Just as they pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat this time last year with the North American premiere of The Bodyguard, producing artistic director Mark Hoebee and managing director Todd Schmidt, have done it again with a sterling production of “the world’s best-loved family musical” – one filled with whopping sentiment, hilarity, and beloved tunes fit for the entire family.

ANNIELeadPhotoThe vastness of Paper Mill’s stage, which comes extremely close to rivaling Radio City Music Hall’s, and set designers desire to fill it all the way Left and Right, has worked against many a show. But this isn’t one of those occasions.
Adapted from Harold Gray’s classic comic strip, Little Orphan Annie by the late three-time Tony-winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray -- and Young Frankenstein, enjoying quite a successful London revival), it’s the Great Depression and we find red-headed moppet Annie, the eldest child at the New York Municipal Orphanage, has never given up hope her parents, who dropped her off 11 years earlier, are coming for her. To search the streets and “Hoovervilles” (camps of the downtrodden) of NYC in the hope of finding them she becomes quite adept at escaping the drudgery of the hard-knock-life  – only to be caught and returned to the clutches of cruel, heavy-drinking, slovenly Miss Hannigan. In a twist of fate, billionaire industrialist, world traveler, art collector, and name-dropper of just about everyone famous in the 30s, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, in a benevolent gesture, decides to pick an orphan to spend a Christmas like no other. At his Fifth Avenue mansion, Annie warms not only his heart, but the hearts of his secretary Grace Farrell, butlers, maids, even FDR, who’s finding ways to put Americans back to work. Warbucks engages Eliot Ness and the FBI in a search for Annie’s parents and offers $50,000 so they can start a new life. Hannigan’s brother, Rooster, straight out of the slammer, abetted by his moll Lily concocts a plan to capture the biggest prize of their tawdry lives. But …

AnnieBLeavelCSieberHoebee, a seasoned director (credits at Paper Mill alone include: Dreamgirls, Hello, Dolly!, High School Musical, Mary Poppins, Miss Saigon, and among numerous others, The King and I and West Side Story), also helms this production.
He’s assembled a huge cast of 30 plus, headlined by two Paper Mill favorites: indefatigable Tony-winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone; at Paper Mill and on Broadway in Bandstand and, in a long and storied career, as record executive Florence Greenberg in Baby It’s You (Tony nomination) as that stinker Miss Hannigan and Tony-nominee Christopher Sieber (Tony nominations, Spamalot and Shrek, later in Matilda as harsh, bombastic educator Miss Trunchbull) as Warbucks.

You might wonder, “Another Annie? Why?”
 The Broadway original inspired two main stem revivals, at least four national tours, two stage sequels, a musical film, TV adaptation, a horrible, somewhat-based-on musical movie set in contemporary times, countless local productions, and Paper Mill’s 1983 and 2002 productions – to name but a few. The answer is simple: Leavel’s Miss Hannigan, a role she was born to play and one  she inhibits with pratfalls, slapstick, and face-twisting antics; Sieber, whose amply-endowed outsized voice and steady hand offer just the reassurance needed in hard times; and it’s the perfect time of year to be lifted out of the doldrums with Strouse and Charnin’s score. Who doesn’t need to be assured that the sun’ll come out tomorrow?
Add two adorable, spirited ‘’orphan” heartbreakers as alternating Annies: Cassidy Pry [who performed opening night, January 26) and Peyton Ella [who got to join the company for bows opening night]. Season it with a brood of sassy, rambunctious orphan pests: Gabby Beredo (Pepper), Michelle Henderson (Duffy), Eve Johnson (Tessie), Lauren Sun (July), Sloane Wolfe (Kate), and pint-sized (nine-years-old) scene-stealing dynamo Tessa Noelle Frascogna (Molly), who also proves to be quite an acrobat.
Co-starring are Erin Mackey (Paper Mill: South Pacific; In Transit, Amazing Grace) portrays “Daddy” Warbuck’s secretary Grace Farrell; Cooper Grodin (Les Miz; title role, national tour Phantom), Rooster Hannigan, Miss Hannigan’s brother straight-out-of-the slammer and ready to do no good; abetted by Lily St. Regis, portrayed by Kim Sava (Matilda); and Kevin Pariseau is Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There are nice moments for featured cast members, such as Allen Kendall, in one of his four roles, radio personality Bert Healy, and his rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” along with the program’s Boylan Sisters (Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Marilley, and belter-who-needs-no-amplication Anneliza Canning-Skinner). Wait: there’s one more: Macy, the rescue dog as Sandy (a role she’s played many times).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
OANNIETFrascoPEllaMacyf course, there’re the tunes: Annie’s heart-breaking “Maybe” and optimistic “Tomorrow”; Leavel’s show-stopping “Little Girls”; Grodin, Sava, and Leavel’s “Easy Street”; Sieber’s poignant “Something Was Missing”; and those scraping orphans, who keep things roarin’ with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
Jeffery Saver is music director and conducts excellent, new arrangements crafted for this production by Keith Levenson (music director, conductor, original Annie) and rousingly played by the 15-strong orchestra.
The superb design of reversible sets and stunning painted scrims of New York City by Tony-winning and Obie-honored craftsman Beowulf Boritt (Paper Mill: The Honeymooners, A Bronx Tale. Broadway: Prince of Broadway, Come from Away, Act One (Tony), and, among many others, the just-opened Meteor Shower) have been smartly resurrected from Paper Mill’s 2002 production; along with the costumes by Suzy Benzinger. The knee-jerk, acrobatic choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock; regional, The Nutty Professor), is far from a highlight – rarely rising to the occasion except for the orphan’s show-stopper “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and some stylish movement when Mackey and Warbuck’s staff pay tribute to their favorite orphan in the show’s title song.

In the program notes, director Hobbee writes: “It’s significant that the show, like its lead character, has at its core an indefatigable spirit so full of hope. The anthemic tune Annie sings near the beginning of the story declares that even through the dark times of the Great Depression, when half the country was broke, or out of work, and it seemed as though politicians were unconcerned with the plight of the common man, there was still hope … [the late] Thomas Meehan threaded through this musical the powerful message that family can be found in the most unlikely of places … We can’t think of a better way to celebrate that love of family, the promise that hope brings, and the joy of the season than by sharing this wonderful musical.”

Photographs by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

For more information go to:


New Production of "Phantom of the Opera" Plays Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre; Andrew Lloyd Webber Reminisces on the London Premiere

Production photos by Matthew Murphy and Alastair Muir

Sixteen years ago, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s The Phantom of the Opera became the longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing Webber’s “now and forever” Cats’ 7,485 performances. On January 26, POTO continues its reign into a fourth decade, seemingly “now and forever.” 

POTO, produced by Cameron Mackintosh (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Cats,) and Webber’s Really Useful Company, is not only one of the most successful Broadway road shows ever but also one of the largest. This new production, co-produced with NETworks Presentations, as dazzling and dramatic as the original, launched in November 2013. It returns to Memphis’ majestic and historic Orpheum Theatre November 29 through December 10. The musical first took Memphis by storm in November 1997, with thousands of theatergoers from throughout the region making it a sold-out smash. It returned to the Orpheum by popular demand in 2001 and 2014.

The Tony Award-winning Best Musical has additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, who co-wrote the book with Webber, based on Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de L’Opéra. The classic story tells of a masked madman, terribly disfigured from a fire at the Paris Opera, lurking beneath the catacombs of the building [which actually exist, along with – as depicted in the show, an underground  lake] and reigning terror over all. He falls madly in love with soprano Christine, and devotes himself to creating a new star –  employing all manner of the devious methods at his command. That includes murder and, when he doesn’t get his way, crashing a massive chandelier onto audiences.
It’s estimated this reimagining of the romantic thriller has been seen by over 2.5-Million across country. There’s reinvented staging by director Laurence Connor (Broadway’s School of Rock, and Miss Saigon revival); and scenic design by Paul Brown.                    

The tour, with choreography by Scott Ambler and lighting by Tony Award winner Paule Constable, has a cast of 30, an eight-member corps de ballet, and 14-piece orchestra under musical supervisor John Rigby, making it one of the largest productions on the road.  

Tenor Derrick Davis is the infamous masked Phantom. He appeared on Broadway and tour as Mufasa in The Lion King; and regionally as Curtis Taylor Jr. in Dreamgirls. His CD, Life Music, is available on Amazon. For a preview of his stunning voice, check out: Derrick Davis sings “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera."

Canada’s Eva Tavares, portraying Christine Daaé, the ingénue at the center of POTO’s love triangle, is a triple treat talent: singer, actress, and choreographer. In March, she was featured in the Toronto world premiere of Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire, and Lobo M’s musical Sousatzka, book by three-time Tony Award nominee Craig Lucas (especially known for The Light in the Piazza), based on the 1962 novel, Madame Sousatzka (filmed in 1988, starring Shirley Maclaine).
In the role of the debnoir, love smitten Vicomte de Chagny Raoul is Texan Jordan Craig, who received training and has performed many roles with Houston Grand Opera.

On Broadway, in January, it will surpass 12,500 performances before an estimated 18 million at Broadways’ Majestic Theatre – where it opened in 1988 with a then-record advance of $18-million. Two years earlier it premiered on London’s West End, where it’s still thriving.
A world-wide theatrical blockbuster, it’s estimated 140 million people in 35 countries (15 languages) have surrendered to what many feel is Webber’s best score. The  two-disk original cast album spent five years on trade charts; and a single-disc highlights recording spent over six years on Billboard’s Pop Album chart.

Back in 1984 as the show was premiering on London’s West End, advance sales and preview audience reaction suggested an unstoppable hit. Webber, on the other hand, even after blockbuster hits Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Evita, was far from certain.

“I wish I could say I had the best time of my life during those heady days,” he
states. “Phantom is the only show I’ve done that was entirely unchanged during previews. Our brilliant director Hal Prince was so certain we’d be a hit that he suggested we take a holiday and return for the opening.

“At openings,” he continues, “even when you feel you have the public with you, you’re at your most vulnerable. I couldn't bear to sit through the show.” Cameron Mackintosh, co-producer, with Webber’s Really Useful Company, found him and got him back for the curtain call. Amid the thunderous applause, Webber yearned to have loved ones around him.
But (then) wife, Sarah Brightman, playing Christine, was onstage basking in audience adulation with her Phantom, Michael Crawford. “While all were celebrating,” Webber says, “I felt alone and frightened.”
It didn’t help when the first review, by the London Sunday Times critic, read “Masked balls.” States Webber, with the memory still vividly ablaze, “Those were the only words. Most composers, let alone producers, would be suicidal to receive a notice such as that. Amazingly, it didn’t faze [co-producer] Cameron [Mackintosh] on bit.”

Ever the optimist, Mackintosh telephoned “while having a jolly good breakfast” and in a fortuitous prediction, stated to Webber, “Nothing any reviewer writes can after the fact that Phantom has chimed with audiences.”

Webber, was used to critical snipes. He points out POTO’s reviews “were wildly polarized between those who really did or really wouldn't surrender to the music of the night.” What was most upsetting was ruinous gossip that Brightman, an alumna of the West End Cats who’d been onstage since her teens, got the role because she was his wife.

 POTOAct2MaskedBallMemphisAMuir“The fine line between success and failure is perilously small,” says Webber. “I’m struck 30 years hence with the phenomenon Phantom has become. Much credit goes to the [Tony Award-winning] late Maria Björnson for her opulent design and costumes. And would another choreographer have understood the period as well as former prima ballerina Dame Gillian Lynne (Cats)? Many said the chandelier moment could never work. It turns out to be the most theatrical moment I ever conceived – a moment that can only be achieved in live theater.”

Legendary, multi Tony Award-winning director of the West End and Broadway productions Harold Prince says he was instantly hooked on the idea that Leroux’s classic was musical material. “To my surprise. Andrew's initial idea for the score was to use famous classical works and write only incidental music. Much to my delight, he later decided on an entirely original score - one of his   greatest.

“However,” he adds, “the superlative score wasn’t Andrew’s only contribution to Phantom’s success. It was his instinct to take the story one step further and make the emotional center of the show a love triangle.That struck a chord with audiences. It’s the crucial difference between our musical, the novel, and other versions of the story.”

The Phantom of the Opera has won more than 70 theater awards, including seven 1988 Tony Awards and three London Olivier Awards. Since 2010, it’s become one of the most accessible musicals of all time with hundreds of high school and university productions licensed through R&H [Rodgers & Hammerstein] Theatricals.

Tickets for the Memphis engagement of POTO are available at the Orpheum box office or by calling (901) 525-3000,, and via Ticketmaster, where service fees will apply.

Trivia: As anyone who’s toured the Paris Opera has seen, there’s a private box
reserved only for the Phantom at every performance – just as he demands in the musical.

Interested in how Memphis’ Orpheum first got The Phantom of the Opera and other big musicals, such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon? Check out their video:

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