“Theater Beat” rounds up news and notes from the theater scene in the Philadelphia region.
Growing up in Media, the late Broadway actress and singer Ann Crumb loved to go to the movies at the Media Theatre, sitting in the back row with her boyfriend. Crumb, who attended Penncrest High School, made her Broadway debut in the original cast of Les Misérables in 1987. She shared her movie-date memory as guest of honor and keynote speaker in 1994 when the theater, which had been a vaudeville house before it was a movie palace, began its a third act as a stage for musicals and music.
Crumb later played a run of memorable roles on the Media Theatre stage — in 2008 as Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir, in 2010 as Maria Callas in Master Class, and in 2014 as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, among others — and was said to consider the venue a second home.
So it’s fitting that the theater will host a memorial service for Crumb who died at 69 in October from ovarian cancer at her parents’ home in Media. The Dec. 29 event is open to all, beginning with a 5 p.m. reception and continuing with a memorial service at 6 p.m., with plenty of music.
Crumb made her professional debut in Philadelphia in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and on Broadway originated the role of Rose Vibert in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. She was nominated for a Tony award for the title role in the 1992 musical adaptation of Anna Karenina.
She came from a musical family. Her father is the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a violinist, and a brother, David, is also a composer. She is survived by another brother, Peter.
“She had an amazing vocal instrument,” her longtime vocal coach Bill Shuman told the Inquirer after her death. “She of course had a famous Broadway voice. She was a belter. But she also had a very legitimate head voice. She could do legitimate operatic music. It’s very rare to find a voice that’s capable of doing both.”
The latest singer to take on Souvenir around here is Curtis-trained vocalist April Woodall, now starring as the famously horrible performer Florence Foster Jenkins (through Jan. 5) in the Act II Playhouse production, in Ambler.
“It’s so freeing, so much fun,” Woodall said. As a classically trained singer, she’s sung many of the same vocal masterpieces that Jenkins once butchered — but beautifully, as envisioned by their composers.
“Knowing the music well,” she said, “I’ve been able to distort it in ways that I know are quite disturbing to people, especially to people who know opera quite well.”
When Woodall first played the part years ago, she performed it for her opera colleagues at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, where she had served as dean of students. There, she said, the play lasted at a full 10 minutes longer, because the audience caught every subtle hilarious nuance in text and music, laughing longer and harder.
But you don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy at her performance at Act II. That’s because of the storytelling by Sonny Leo, whose face registers the stunned disbelief and horror experienced with every note by his character, accompanist Cosme McMoon.
What makes the story compelling is that Jenkins had no idea how bad she sang. Quite the opposite.
“I really do believe that she is an example of courage, of living your life — your unique life — in its best possible way,” said Woodall, who has played the role in six productions.
Audience members often seek her out after the show and say they are going to go home and pursue their passions, even if their spouses, children, and neighbors ridicule them, Woodall said. “What do the kids say today? You do you. Florence was a vanguard in that thought.”
New Ears Eve
A Wizard of Oz for grownups
Say Wizard of Oz, and what comes to mind is the 1939 classic movie starring Judy Garland. “I wanted to go back to the 1900 novel that Frank Baum wrote,” said director Lee Cortopassi, associate artistic director at Quintessence Theatre Group, which is staging the show through Jan. 5 in Mount Airy.
“I tried to stay away from the film — imagining the world for myself," Cortopassi said. “It’s a very wild, colorful abstract space the actors are playing in. A lot of the settings happen from the imaginations of our actors and audience.”
Baum wanted readers to understand Oz as a real place, not a tornado-induced dream. “As crazy, as magical as Oz is,” Cortopassi said, “it does exist for Baum, and for me.”
In the movie, when Dorothy says, “there’s no place like home,” she’s talking about Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas. But in Baum’s book, the idea of home is more nuanced. Cortopassi wants audiences to know that this production is meant for adults, but is kid-friendly, as opposed to being aimed at children accompanied by their grownups.
Theatre Philadelphia, which administers the annual Barrymore Awards, dispatches theater experts to attend plays early in their runs. They then recommend which shows judges should consider for future awards.
These have all made the cut recently: A Christmas Carol at Delaware Theatre Co. through Dec. 29, The Wizard of Oz at Quintessence Theatre Group through Jan. 5, Little Red Riding Hood: A Musical Panto at People’s Light through Jan. 5, The Snow Queen at the Arden Theatre Co. through Jan. 28.