Life of the party

It seemed like an evening-long celebration of Joy Dewing.  At least, to me.

So many have asked me how the opening night of Soul Doctor on Broadway went.  I admit to some confusion as to what answer they’re looking for.  Did I like the show?  Did the audience give it a standing O?  Was there a surprise curtain call guest appearance with a bonus song?  Was the cast party in a cool place?  How were the reviews?

That was August 15, but September 3 is also a time for a day-long celebration of Joy because it’s her birthday.  Like many a husband, I’m at a loss as to what would make a good gift.  But a little recap of that glorious night two-and-a-half weeks ago can serve as this blog’s celebration of a great day to celebrate a great day.  Is this making any sense?

The new Broadway musical Soul Doctor, now playing at Circle-in-the-Square, marks the Broadway debut of Joy Dewing Casting. She’s cast for Broadway before, but the previous times she was part of a team. In June of 2012 she started her own company, and making it to Broadway so fast is extremely impressive, like a rocket taking off.

In fact, Soul Doctor’s off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop was JDC’s first gig, last summer.  For Broadway, though, she found new people for almost all the roles; there was also a new choreographer.  And the script had evolved, redefining characters.  Soul Doctor is a biography of a songwriting rabbi whose life is given direction by a chance encounter with Nina Simone.  Their first scene together is a splendid dialogue, with Simone at the piano, drifting in and out of song.  Getting the right people for these two roles was of paramount importance. While the critics didn’t write raves about the show itself, many extolled the cast, especially Amber Iman as Nina Simone.  Iman’s a powerful presence and a new face: Her resumé is not long.  So, anyone focusing on what’s really good about the show tends to say “That Nina Simone actress is fantastic!  How in the world did they find her?” And then Joy’s ears start ringing, because people keep talking about the brilliant job the casting director did.

So, Opening Night, before the show (from those associated with the show), during intermission (from the enthusiastic audience), after the show and at the cast party, people were singing Joy’s praises, congratulating her, hugging her.  Which is how it should be, every day. Joy does so much for the behind-the-scenes team putting on shows, and, perhaps more than anyone in the business, works to ensure that auditioning actors have a positive experience.  You know fewer than one out of a hundred will be cast, but when you talk to performers who went in for a JDC project, and didn’t get the role, they look upon their time in front of Joy favorably. This is a business where, unfortunately, too many actors, tired of the onslaught of constant rejection, focus their frustration on casting directors.  So, to be popular with the players is a rather rare thing.

Yes, I realize no one’s trusting me to be objective about Joy, or even about Soul Doctor.  But there must be some value, I think, in reading what a bunch of different critics say about a show, and seeing if a common theme emerges. For instance, take Catch Me If You Can, a 2011 Broadway dud by Terrence McNally, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.  Never saw it, but clearly remember the critical consensus that it didn’t tell its story in a compelling way.  Now, before it opened, it looked to be a sure hit, with a quartet of musical theatre stars of the highest caliber: Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Tom Wopat and Kerry Butler.  If you can’t manage more than a five month run with those personalities, what have you?  To my surprise, a national tour was announced, and Joy was hired to cast it.  In her cast were two former students of mine, Merritt David Janes (in the Butz/Hanks role) and Vanessa Dunleavy.  The lead was a very young fellow named Stephen Anthony. Well, just like any spouse with internet access, I read a lot of the road reviews, and regional critics really liked the show, thought it worked, but were especially enthusiastic about Joy’s discovery, Anthony.  What, I ask you, accounted for the difference in response between the all-star outing on Broadway and the road show filled with unknowns?

In Soul Doctor’s case, I think it’s instructive that many critics note the passivity of the title character, an issue that’s plagued many a first-time musical writer.  Protagonists need to do big things, rather than be buffeted by fate like a feather in the wind.  That’s why the much-revised Leonard Bernstein musical Candide can never quite work.  Voltaire wasn’t fashioning a dramatic narrative, and it’s tough for audiences to embrace a hero who doesn’t do all that much.  But the night a lonely cleric wanders into a jazz joint near Columbia and strikes up a conversation with the lady behind the piano – well, there’s gold in the playing, by Eric Anderson and Amber Iman.  And I tell you something nobody involved with Soul Doctor knows – Joy and I live right near a little jazz joint near Columbia.  Beshert!


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