Sunday, February 24, 2013

One Night Only - Alison Fraser in "A Tennessee Williams Songbook"

Tony-nominee Alison Fraser will be performing a one-night only benefit concert of "A Tennessee Williams Songbook," in which Fraser will reprise her sensational performance that brought down the sold-out house at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival last year.

In a jewel box of pop songs, this seasoned actor-singer reveals a voice that ranges from  mellow ballads to grinding, gritty blues.  Accompanied by piano powerhouse Allison Leyton Brown who can rattle the rafters in a dazzling array of musical styles,  Fraser takes us on an emotional journey of romantic longing as she interprets hits from the '30s and '40s including Mississippi blues, Latin love songs, and silky jazz classics. 
Among popular pleasures in the lineup: “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (from A Streetcar Named Desire), “The Party’s Over Now,” “If I Didn’t Care,” and a sultry “St. Louis Woman."  The collection of songs from Williams’ plays was compiled by Festival curator David Kaplan, who directed the concert.

"A Tennessee Williams Songbook" is coming to New York for a one-night only performance tomorrow, February 25th at 8 pm at Five Angels Theater, located at 789 Tenth Avenue (between 52nd and 53rd Streets).  Tickets are available online and all proceeds benefit the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.

If you are unable to make tomorrow night's performance, you'll have another chance to see "A Tennessee Williams Songbook" at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival beginning March 20th, where it will run for three performances.

Photo by Josh Andrus

Alison Fraser was nominated for Tony Awards for The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance. She has appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall, The White House, The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, The Tisch Center for the Arts, The Folger Shakespeare Library, Joe's Pub and Symphony Space.

Allison Leyton Brown performs live at the upscale Feinstein's, the legendary Birdland, and many other venues. She plays keyboards and organs regularly with the New Orleans-inspired band Smith & 9th Ward, The Outer Borough Brass Band, New York’s Finest Jazz Band, and fronts the trio House of Stride.

The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival is the country’s largest performing arts festival dedicated to America’s great playwright. It  takes place in various venues throughout the seaside village of Provincetown.  This year’s theme of Tennessee Williams and Women: 50% Illusion takes place Sept 26 – 29.   Theater artists from around the globe come together to perform classic and innovative productions celebrating the enduring influence of  Tennessee Williams in the 21st Century.   Visit for more information.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Justin Utley Stands Up for Provincetown

By Greg Waagner

[My apologies to Greg and Justin - this review was written in July, but languished in my inbox until now - Ed.]

Summertime on Cape Cod brings all manner of interesting and talented folks to Provincetown.   This was most certainly the case when the Crown and Anchor Cabaret welcomed singer-songwriter Justin Utley to its glittery stage for a one-night engagement earlier this month.

Nominated by the LGBT Academy of Recording Arts for four 2010 OUTMusic Awards, including song and artist of the year (and winner for Best Folk/Country Song of the Year for the anthemic  Stand for Something), Justin began his career as a Mormon contemporary singer/songwriter, garnering plenty of local praise as well as being a featured performer at the  Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.   After coming out – and then enduring two years of the Mormon church’s conversion therapy – Justin wrote a self-excommunication letter and broke ties with his Mormon past, which is pretty much the history that inspired his award-winning song.

This reviewer is of a generation which remembers a time when performers were rarely out and almost never sang songs that were overtly about any gay experience.   This is happily no longer the case, but let’s not rush to apply labels.  While it’s cool for the LGBT community to embrace someone with the descriptor of “gay” singer/songwriter, that’s potentially limiting for an artist whose music clearly has appeal not only to his gay brothers and sisters, but to all music-lovers and fans of the human experience.

So, what about Justin?    His show was just terrific, with music and memoir woven together effortlessly.   While already a fan of his music, I’ll admit wondering beforehand what introducing memoir about his experiences of growing up Mormon and being put through Ex-Gay therapy would do to the evening.   After all, it seems not to be the most uplifting of tales.   Justin’s stories of surviving the experience most certainly are uplifting, however, and through the prism of his bright spirit are both rendered both fascinating and entertaining.

As Justin  talks, it is clear it is that spirit (and the support of a few strong and intelligent women in his family) that helped him become this sincere, friendly and happy guy on the other side of that journey.   He admits having been the Boy Scout suspicious New Yorkers accused him of being when – “just off the boat from Utah” – he would hold doors and say “hello” to people and also to being caught off guard by the fact that “pot cookies” weren’t named for being a stovetop creation. 

Such innocence might lead you to think Justin wouldn’t be much of a rocker, but he’ll prove you wrong from the first notes of tunes like My Great Escape and Nothing This Real (both  about escaping the gravitational pull of Salt Lake City’s Mormons to explore the rest of the world).  This guy can bring it, his voice ringing through the room and bringing to life his story-driven lyrics, whether he’s rocking out or letting his voice soar, ballad-style.

Although happy and partnered now (Sorry boys, Facebook says!), Justin has penned his share of break-up songs.   They’re a musical staple, after all, and isn’t it always pain that inspires creation?  State of Loneliness  came of a relationship thwarted by another’s struggles with substance abuse and is full of the pain and frustrated heartache born of that struggle  (“…I’ll tell you how I feel and never live it down…” ).  After the show, Justin worried to us about whether it was a moment that brought the audience down, but that’s not the case at all, as he’s taken that painful situation and turned it into something beautiful – a song that perhaps can bring new light for others who’ve been in similar situations.

It Is What It Is is a different kind of break-up song, though:  an empowering riff about cutting one’s losses and saying “so long” to a self-absorbed hot mess.   Utley says it’s the fiddle in the studio recording of this one that got him the Country-Western label, and after it’s release, he found himself shopping for boots and flannel to fit the profile when he was to perform at Utah Pride.   There’s also a country sound to Guided Back to You, which is sort of a break-up song, but one with hope that - in this case - the break-up is only temporary ( “…just check your feet’s direction on this map that’s made for two, and if I’m ever lucky, I’ll be guided back to you…”).

Goodbye Goodbye is another one that falls into the category of Empowering Break-up Song, but this one carries a slightly different weight, since it comes from an earlier time in Justin’s story.  This one, he tells us, is about a girl he dated as part of his Ex-Gay Therapy homework assignment.   It seemed to be going well, but when he found out on Christmas that he was just one of a number of guys she was dating, he learned a lesson about “not making someone a priority who considers us only an option.”

For the show, Justin alternated back and forth between performing solo on stage, with just a guitar, or with the addition of pre-recorded band tracks behind him for a fuller sound (One imagines how much fun it would be to hear Justin perform with a live band in a stadium setting, perhaps at one of the Pride events he’s becoming so popular for.) But then Justin crossed over to the piano for a few numbers, wowing us with a fresh and wonderful arrangement of a piano/vocal cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, which couldn’t have sounded less like the Tears for Fears original.

Then, as if to answer the desire for other backing musicians, Justin welcomed his bassist friend, Ricardo Rodriguez, to the stage for a performance of Utley’s latest single, Moment For Me and then – far too quickly – the evening was coming to a close with Justin’s award-winning Stand For Something, bring the audience to their feet.

During the course of the evening, Justin’s vocal range and song constructions carried for this reviewer echoes of Jonathan Larsen and RENT (Justin would be a great Roger, IMHO).   After the show, I mentioned this and pointed out how his songs all come from such interesting stories and experiences and asked if he’d ever considered creating a musical to showcase those songs.  He hadn’t, as it turns out, but was gracious enough to respond like it was the best idea ever, even if he didn’t agree.

So, pay attention, music and theatre fans.   It’s true Broadway may already have The Book of Mormon, but The Book of Justin is just a few chapters in and anything’s possible.    Keep your eyes peeled for performance notices in your area (and find him on Facebook), so you don’t miss an opportunity to hear this terrific artist when he comes to your town.