07 April 2012

Catching up with a Few Friends

Actress: Janice Hall

Readers of this blog may have noted a deeply unprofessional tendency on my part to praise certain performers and writers, especially those whom I know personally. This is fatal behavior in any critic, which may be why I’m no longer getting many assignments in publications I don’t own. So let me take this opportunity to tell you about a few ladies who have graced these virtual pages on several occasions, since I can corroborate their excellence by citing fresh credits and evidence of the esteem of others.

First up is Janice Hall, the operatic soprano who recently took up a new career in cabaret. You may remember that, when I heard her latest act, I’d Rather Be Doing This, at New York’s Metropolitan Room (and by the way, there’s another performance coming up on April 18), she added a quick set of numbers from her Marlene Dietrich show, Grand Illusions, for the edification of any audience present who were voting in the MAC Awards competition (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs). Well, the results are in, and Janice has been named the Female Vocalist of 2012.

I told you she was good.

Janice arrived late to the awards ceremony, because she’d been onstage — and decidedly less glamorous — in what is her off-Broadway acting debut, in Monica Bauer’s play My Occasion of Sin at Urban Stages under the direction of Frances Hill, which I saw last weekend.

Grand Illusions’ director, Peter Napolitano,
won a MAC Award, too.

Now I knew that Janice could act quite beautifully, of course: I’ve seen her in opera. And I knew she could handle spoken dialogue, not least because David Gately, director of Fort Worth Opera’s production of Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America, actually restored a lengthy speech from Tony Kushner’s play, which Janice performed on video. She played an elderly Bolshevik, in heavy makeup and a heavier Russian accent. And she was transfixing.

In My Occasion of Sin, Janice doesn’t sing a note, and she portrays only one woman, who’s far from the most likable character onstage. Helen is severe, prudish, and so caught up in her Catholic faith and her narrow social set that she can’t see her own bigotry and its harmful consequences. That’s a problem in Omaha on the eve of a race riot.

You’d never know Janice hasn’t been a “legit” actress all her life, and her voice, as beautifully modulated in speech as it is in song, really conveys Helen’s need for a certain kind of order. Janice fully holds her own with a terrific cast: Scott Robertson as her husband, Rosebud Baker as their music student, hunky Royce Johnson as a jazz musician, and Danielle Renée Thompson as a young girl who seems (and for the most part, is) unconnected to anyone else in the play.

The script ping-pongs between Thompson’s extended monologues and the drama enacted by the other members of the ensemble. Structurally, the back-and-forth becomes tedious, and nothing much happens to Thompson’s character — which is only right, I suppose, since she’s playing a 14-year-old. But it’s also time-consuming, and distracting from the more urgent action in the rest of this already long, intermission-less play.

Even given the excellence of Janice and the other actors, the fate of the play really rests on Thompson, and of course Bauer can’t be sure the next actress will be equally talented, or so ably directed. Whether narrating or mimicking others, Thompson is persuasive and quite charming, but she and director Hill barely manage to keep the thing going. For these ladies’ work and that of the rest of the cast, I do recommend My Occasion of Sin to you — just as I recommend cuts and revisions to the playwright.

Ann Harada, with the lovely but fashion-challenged Debra Messing.
And yes, that’s Anjelica Huston — Anjelica Freakin’ Huston — in the background.

In other news, lovely Ann Harada has joined the cast of NBC’s Smash, so that you can see for yourself how terrific she is, playing the stage manager, Linda. Grounded and fully engaged no matter what’s going on around her, she’s one of the more believable characters in the show, and I’m hoping they’ll give her a major story line soon.

In the meantime, she’s getting great press, including the picture above, from a New York Magazine slideshow of all the awful costumes Debra Messing has worn on the show. I hardly pay attention to such things while the TV is on, but to see the outfits collected this way is impressive and rather scary. To people such as the New York editors, who actually know something about fashion, poor Debra must be horrifying.

As you can see in the picture, Linda is busily sketching Julia (Messing), so that future generations will never forget the awfulness of her dress.

And finally, I was looking forward to the great Charles Busch’s return to the stage, with his Biblical epic, Judith of Bethulia, at New York’s Theater for the New City through April 28. Apparently there’s a D.W. Griffith movie of the same name, in which Blanche Sweet plays Judith, which is just the sort of thing you would expect Charles Busch to know all about, really.

But guess what? The entire run is sold out, which drastically diminishes my latest chance to admire Jennifer Van Dyke in guy’s clothes. Still, I find comfort in the fact that my friends are so talented — and you don’t have to take my word for it.

The cast of Judith of Bethulia, featuring Busch (second from left)
and dashing Jennifer Van Dyck (far right).

Now if Debra Messing wanted to make a really bold fashion statement,
she’d hire Charles Busch to pick out her costumes.

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