Ryan Welton

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Category Archives: theatre

Tweet it, Post it: Sooner or later, theater etiquette will be digital-friendly

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I am super opinionated and passionate about this topic because I love and support the performing arts, but I also work and live in the digital world.

In fact, I’ve written about it before.

Whether it’s a play, a musical, a concert, it’s a fact: sooner or later the seal will be completely off, and smartphones will become integrated with the experience. And it will be glorious because it will cause unreasonable theater snobs to seize in agony.

That’s an exaggeration, and I don’t actually want anybody to experience pain.

I also get it.

I don’t want to be bothered by somebody’s flash. I don’t want somebody to be holding their phone up in front of me for the full two-hour duration of a performance. Then again, the worst behavioral offense I’ve ever encountered at a show had nothing to do with technology. It was two women sitting behind Kristi and me who would not stop talking during what was a fantastic Kenny Loggins show.

People asked them to stop, and they responded, “We paid for the tickets. We can do as we please.”

Nobody is suggesting that the performing arts become a digital free-for-all. However, it is completely reasonable to accept that not everybody enjoys the arts in the same way. One person’s “the theater is meant to be experienced by the whole of the person” is another’s “I want to document this amazing experience forever.”

One response is not superior to the other, and to suggest so is supreme snobbery.

It will soon be antiquated.

The New York Times writes about it in its Oct. 6 edition, “Filming the Show: Pardon the Intrusion? Or Punish It?” And I’m not interested in arguing with anybody on this topic because I don’t intend to upset anybody’s theater experience with my phone. But, also, I’m ultimately on the right side of performing arts history on this one.

Alas, I am going to root on and support anybody who challenges these norms.

And I’m going to declare “I told you so” when theater companies start creating “digital-friendly” shows. Eventually, “digital-friendly” shows will be the norm, and the outlier performances and concerts will be “digital-free.”

The Times’ article says it’s already happening.

But others are trying to embrace the digitally tethered: Some orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, have experimented with letting people keep their phones on during some concerts and offer an app to guide people through the music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra does this, too, at select “Casual Fridays” concerts, in certain designated seats.

And then there are the compromises: When Bruce Springsteen was on Broadway in 2017 and last year, the production put an insert in the Playbill, urging fans accustomed to rock concerts not to use their phones during the show, but promising that Mr. Springsteen would stay onstage during the curtain call long enough for people to take pictures. The Metropolitan Opera offers similar advice on its website: “Tip: Snap a pic of the cast during curtain call!”

To me, this is a wonderful compromise. Let folks go to town before the show and toward the end of it. But did you read what the Philadelphia Orchestra is doing with the app to guide people through the music?

That’s marketing 101, people.

There will probably always be enough theater nerds to fill Broadway shoes in New York. But I’ll tell you: when RENT came to Oklahoma City, the place was less than half full. And tickets were cheap.

Sad.

Promoting the arts isn’t merely about endlessly advocating for more public school dollars. It’s about introducing the masses to talent and beauty, skill and precision, through the devices we carry in our pockets.

And that happens when you allow the true believers or at least the admirers to share their experiences digitally. The smart thing to do would be to create digital content around the art and to designate certain portions of the performance as being phone-friendly.

It will happen whether you like it or not. Might as well regulate it.

 

Review: RENT’s Oklahoma City production a worthwhile 20th anniversary tribute

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It was the musical that made Broadway cool again, as one reviewer put it.

RENT opened 21 years ago, and I was among the lucky who got to see it on Broadway. It was during a business trip to New York City, and I had seen the ensemble perform “Seasons of Love” on the TODAY show. This is early Internet era, so I actually watched it on TV. Musically, I was sold.

During this trip to NYC, I spent my days at the Javitz Center, but I spent a good chunk of one particular day trying to procure tickets to see the hot new show at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st. There was no Ticketmaster back then. I had to call somebody on the phone and place an order. Talk about a pain in the butt.

I showed up early to the theatre, mostly because I didn’t know what the heck else to do in Manhattan and I didn’t have a ton of funds with which to do it (the real reason). Truth is: I was the first person to show up for the show that night, and I was struck by how intimate the Nederlander Theatre is. It’s not huge at all. Hell, it’s tiny.

The first person I saw was Wilson Cruz, who was playing Angel Dumott Schunard at the time. He was walking through the theatre in half-dress looking for something. I thought to myself: Kind of cool. Breaking the fourth wall before the show even starts.

Here’s what I realize two decades later: I saw Idina Menzel in her first big Broadway role. I saw Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin and Anthony Rapp, too, although I missed Adam Pascal (the original Roger) by about a month. Cruz was filling in for Wilson Jermaine Heredia on this night, and I believe Fredi Walker (Joanne) had just left the cast as well.

What I got to witness was a genuine early look at pop culture history, first-hand, and the show has always been an influence on me relative to a philosophy of creation-for-the-sake-of-creation. “The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation,” as Mark says toward the end of “La Vie Boheme,” which closes the first act.

If “Seasons of Love” sold me on the show musically, “La Vie Boheme” is precisely and beautifully stereotypically what Broadway should be in its choreographed chaos, catchy music and memorable lines.

“Why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow off Auntie Em…La Vie Boheme.”

So, RENT is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and it’s making a stop in Oklahoma City at the Civic Center Music Hall. If you’re looking for in-depth negative criticism, you won’t find it here. I’ll tell you about what I like, but I have no interest in tearing anybody down, and I can’t pretend to be too knowledgeable about Broadway. No, not everybody in this cast lived up to what I remember — but a couple folks damned sure did.

Collins. The review in The Oklahoman from opening night didn’t have great things to say about Aaron Harrington. In fact, his performance was largely panned by the paper. I *think* it may have been Devinre Adams to play Tom Collins on my evening, although I’m not sure. In my opinion, whoever played him had the best voice in the entire company and largely sounded just like the cast recording.

The Oklahoman’s primary criticism of Harrington’s performance was that he didn’t pull off the anarchist part of Collins’ character. I’m not sure what they were looking for: he was terrific.

Maureen. When she first appeared late in the first act, she did so much more majestically than I remember Menzel’s Maureen. And when Lyndie Moe performed “Over the Moon,” she did so with a ton more physicality than I remembered from Menzel. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it kind of made me think of how Chris Farley would have done “Over the Moon.” What’s even more amazing is that Moe is only a freshman in college, studying at Rider University in New Jersey.

I didn’t like her Maureen…until I did. Moe was terrific, and I realized this about midway through the second act, after her “Take Me Or Leave Me” performance with Joanne, played aptly by Jasmine Easler. I don’t mind sounding like a fool here, but Moe was better to me than what Menzel was in New York City, not that I remember everything about that performance. Sitting in the cramped Nederlander some 20 years ago, I don’t remember thinking to myself, “Holy crap, I’m watching Idina Menzel!” For what it’s worth, the Broadway performance of RENT back in 1997 was highlighted by Cruz’s portrayal of Angel, who by most accounts is the character the entire story revolves around.

Aaron Alcaraz was solid as Angel here in Oklahoma City. If you were to ask me what it takes to pull off a production of RENT, I would tell you that your No. 1 task is to make sure you’ve got a strong Angel. Alcaraz studied at Ithaca College in New York and has credits in “Alladin” and “A Chorus Line.”

For those of you who don’t know the story behind RENT and its creator, it’s highly bittersweet. I’m guessing 99 percent of anybody who reads this blog post knows that Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the night before the show’s big premiere. Reminds me of Eva Cassidy a bit, an artist who achieved fame only after death.

The only bad part about the experience at the Civic Center Music Hall is one that happens at venues across the country. Their employees obsess over scolding people who take photos before or during the show. On this particular night, the Civic Center Music Hall was only 50-60 percent full. It was so empty that ushers started guiding people to the front of the auditorium.

Before the show, about 10 minutes before, I snapped a photo of the stage from about 200 feet away. An usher named Maurice, wearing big red glasses, came by and said that photography was not allowed and that I needed to delete the photo I just took.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Here’s the deal, and this is for everybody in music, theatre and any kind of performance: Phones are here forever-more, and people spend money not for performances but for experiences, which encompasses the time before the production as well. Furthermore, in an economy where discretionary dollars are tough to come by, touring companies and concert promoters should beg customers to take photos and even record video to share on social media.

Beg them.

That is not an excuse for people to be obnoxious. I would argue that every event has its own norm, its own rules: Sometimes everybody is like, “Nope. No phones.” At others, people are like, “We goin’ Facebook Live up in here!” The behavior of the masses dictates what’s acceptable digitally.

There’s really nothing production companies can do about it — nor should they. I’ll go on a longer rant about this sometime, but they’re collective fools for not embracing technology. It does nothing to degrade the experience, especially when done before the show or at the end of it.

If you get a chance to see RENT while it’s in Oklahoma City, do so (they did a good job) — and take a photo right in front of Maurice. Do it for me.

And check out my version (a too slow version) of “Seasons of Love” that I posted to my YouTube channel this past week. I’d love it if you’d subscribe!! Or at least watch the video. It will only take three of your 525,600 minutes today.

‘Oliver!,’ ‘Rock of Ages’: Stage productions with Oklahoma flavor

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I wouldn’t consider myself a theatre geek. Instead, I’m somebody who enjoys anything that happens on a stage: plays, musicals, dance, orchestra, concerts, you name it. I’m a musician, and I’ve been the lead in two plays. I suspect I enjoy attention.

When I was a teen, way back when, my friends and I all listened to the “Chess” cast recording, which was basically the second act of ABBA. Seriously. The music was written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

It was beloved by fans, but the show didn’t succeed in America. There is talk of “Chess” coming back to Broadway next year after a revival in Britain this year. Long story short: that would be awesome, and I think it would do much better this go-round if the adaptations are done well. There is plenty of East-West fodder between Russia and the United States, no?

In my one and only true Broadway experience, I got to see RENT at the Nederlander Theatre in 1997 — and in a bit of foreshadowing, I’m seeing it again in Oklahoma City this upcoming week at the Civic Center Music Hall for its 20th anniversary.

As with Chess, I loved the music of RENT.

But in the past week alone, I added a couple more stage experiences to my collection — a performance of Oliver! at the Sooner Theatre in Norman and Rock of Ages at Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City. Both were a lot of fun.

Oliver!, the Lionel Bart classic based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” was played to a largely empty theater due to a bigger production in town: Oklahoma vs. Texas Tech football. What made this production particularly enjoyable was the local flavor.

(The photo below was taken about 10 minutes before the opening scene. It filled up to about 30 percent by the start of the show.)

oliver

Young Oliver was played by local fifth-grader Callen Stewart, and he was terrific. However, for me, David Mays stole the show as Fagin and understudy Madison Breedlove shined as Nancy. They were fantastic, as was the small but boisterous crowd — even if some of us were checking their phones periodically to catch World Series scores.

Yeah, that was me.

That was me on Wednesday night, too, as we saw “Rock of Ages” in northwest Oklahoma City at the always charming Lyric Theatre. I had seen the movie and didn’t like it aside from Tom Cruise’s sublime performance as Stacee Jaxx.

However, the stage performance was quite a different story. It started off pretty slowly for me. Lonny, played by Gregory Decandia, opened with David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” and much of his time was spent early breaking the fourth wall to set up the story.

What the audience figures out quickly is that this is the charm of the production. We’re all part of it.

The story of “Rock of Ages” is about a pair of aspiring performers, Drew and Sherrie, whose romance blossoms under the roof of a local bar called the Bourbon Room. Between Lonny and Dennis Dupree, owner of the Bourbon Room, we’re made to feel like regulars. Side note: Dennis was played by Vince Leseny, but his voice sounded exactly and uncannily just like comedian Kyle Kinane’s.

I kept thinking to myself, “Does Kyle have a side gig?” Even his vocal mannerisms were the same.

We see it all from the moment Drew refers to Sherrie as “a friend” to the moment she unwisely takes up with Stacee Jaxx in the bathroom. If you remember Cruise in the movie, Jaxx is an over-confident lead-singer type who thinks he can get every girl with the snap of a finger.

And he usually can.

Sherrie is played by the young, sweet Julianne Hough in the movie, but Lauren Urso shined as the perky blonde on stage. However, for my money, nobody outshined OCU student and Albuquerque native Derrick Medrano as Drew.

I don’t know if Director Ashley Wells knows just how well she nailed the casting, but she couldn’t have picked a better male lead for this production. Medrano looked like every aspiring 1980s rock-n-roll lead singer that I ever saw and had the vocal chops to handle everything from Dee Snider to Steve Perry with soulful aplomb.

rock-of-ages

All in all, this entire cast and production were terrific, and there were small touches evident throughout the theatre — from bras hanging atop the theatre railing to the merchants outside the main theater in costume, holding their lit lighters high in the air.

Just a reminder of how much talent resides right here in Oklahoma.

 

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