Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Motown Plays the Soundtrack for Generations

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Photo by Joan Marcus


“Motown The Musical” plays the Songs of Your Life

By Skip Sheffield

The music of Motown Records is truly the soundtrack for a generation. In fact the records of Detroit’s “Hitsville USA” have transcended generations.
You can experience this firsthand by seeing “Motown The Musical,” running through March 8 at Broward Center for the Arts.
This “Juke Box Musical" is centered around the story of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. The story begins in 1938, when as a child Berry, called “Junior” by his family, was inspired by the boxing victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmeling. Louis was black. Schmeling was white, and a German to boot at a time when Nazis were overrunning Europe. Gordy realized a young black boy could dream big and accomplish big things. The book for “Motown the Musical” is based on Gordy’s book “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.”
Yes, Gordy dreamed big. He had a big ego as well. We see that as the story flashes forward to 1983 in Los Angeles for an onstage celebration of Motown’s 25th anniversary, starring Motown’s brightest stars. By this time most of Motown’s stars had left the label for better offers. Angry and resentful, Gordy was balking at appearing at his own celebration.
Gordy is played by Clifton Oliver as an adult and Leon Outlaw, Jr. as a child. Outlaw will return in act two to steal the show as young Michael Jackson. This kid is nothing short of phenomenal.
All of the cast is strong; particularly Motown loyalist and prolific songwriter Smokey Robinson, as portrayed by Jesse Nager. Providing a foil for Gordy is Jarran Muse as the temperamental singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye.
The female lead with the most stage time is Alison Semmes as Diana Ross. Like the real Diana, Semmes is petite, pretty and delicate, with a honey-sweet voice. She is also quite the fashion plate, with one dazzling dress after another. The outstanding costumes of both the men and women are part of what makes “Motown” so much fun. The real delight is the catalog of some 60 hit songs, performed rapidly with smooth dance moves over the course of two and a half hours. It would be pointless to list titles, because there are so many. One thing for sure; you will recognize the tunes, and they will bring a smile to your face.
Tickets start at $34.75. Call TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or go to www.browardcenter.org.



Living in Old Deerfield

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By Skip Sheffield

We first lived in Deerfield Beach the winter I was four, in 1951. We rented one of the more unusual “Kester Cottages.” It was a large two-story duplex just east of the Intracoastal Waterway and south of Hillsboro Blvd. It was knotty pine and had real cedar closets that smelled great.
My memories at age 4 are rather hazy, but a couple things stand out. My mother and her friends were avid beach-goers and sun worshipers. There was a friendly little community east of A1A and we came to know most of them. My mother’s best friend was Elvene, who lived in the two-story 1925-vintage apartment house on A1A, which only just recently was demolished.
My favorite neighbor was Mr. Strong, who lived in a tidy 1940s house less than a block from the beach.
Befitting his name Mr. Strong was in great shape. He was an avid fisherman and had great knowledge of marine life. He used to surf-cast using sand fleas as bait. He taught me how to identify sand fleas burrowed under the sand at the shore line.
Our mother did not yet drive, so we were pretty much confined to the community around Hillsboro Boulevard and A1A. There was a little grocery store around the bend toward the fishing pier. The bridge over the Intracoastal was a completely manual wooden swing bridge from the 1920s. It took forever for it to open and close, because the mechanism was powered by two men going round and round, pushing a turn-table bar.
My paternal grandparents came to visit that winter. I loved my grandfather, who was a very handy man. He set himself to the task of building a dock out of driftwood and found lumber. Back then there were no sea walls and no rigid regulations on what you could or couldn’t build.
The dock was still standing when we returned in 1954. My dad had a temporary job with Ray Qualmann Marine Contractors while he awaited his real job: executive manager of Lauderdale Yacht Club and our first house of our own. I was 7 and had started the school year at H.L. Mountz School in Spring Lake, New Jersey. The academic standards were high at Mountz School. Not so at Deerfield Beach Elementary School. My sister, who was 6 and a first-grader, and I were so far advanced the Principal wanted us both to skip a grade.
I did not think this was a good idea, as I was puny and undersized. I did not want to be the youngest, smallest person through the rest of public school.
My practical sister Sheila dealt with our situation by volunteering to tutor third-graders in reading. I was given a special exemption to nap time, which came after lunch. I was a hyperactive boy and I could never nap. I was allowed to spend the hour-long nap time in the playground, which was a lot better than being sleepless in the classroom.
Because of our nomadic lifestyle; winters in Florida and summers in the Northeast, we Sheffield kids did not have many material possessions. We did not get a television until I was 7. I never had a bicycle until I was 7. It was a used full-sized woman’s bike from the 1940s, I was huge, heavy and brush-painted forest green. My dad had given one of his black co-workers $10 for it.
No training wheels for me. Big Norm gave me an instant lesson. He told me to get on the bike and hold on to the handlebars. Then he grabbed the seat and started running with the bike. After it got up to speed he shoved it off. I crashed several times before I got the hang of it. I must admit it was a fast way to learn how to ride a bike, though I was bruised and bloodied. I was liberated on that big green bike. We moved to Fort Lauderdale in December of 1954, but I would return to Deerfield Beach to live twice more.
In 1967 a couple of band mates took me in to their apartment, just west of US 1 and south of Hillsboro Blvd. I was destitute and starving after a year of trying to live on my own after my family moved to Columbus, Ohio. I was too proud to ask my parents for help. All I had for income was a part-time job at the Boca Raton News, three days a week, distributing papers to motels and hotels. I often would work all night, and then go directly to classes at Palm Beach Junior (now State) College. I often slept in class. I would station myself behind a large person. Nevertheless I graduated with honors for an A.A. degree.
My last Deerfield stay was in an apartment building just south of where I had been previously. I had agreed to take in my 17-year-old brother John, who had been kicked out by my dad. We first lived in an opulent 1923 house in Delray Beach just east of US 1 and north of Atlantic Ave. I had what was the formal parlor, dining room, kitchen and master bedroom. It had a walk-in closet so large (with a window too) I set up a cot for John, and he had plenty of room.
Being a foster dad to a 17-year-old was not ideal. We both had our scrapes with the law. I lost my license for points, mostly speeding, for three months. John lost his license for a whole year, because he crashed the truck that belonged to the pest control company he worked.
I was already working in the production department of the Boca Raton News. I hired John as my assistant, and we got the apartment in Deerfield because we could ride to work on Dixie Highway on our bicycles. Once we got our licenses back, we went our separate ways, so it was goodbye Deerfield Beach. I can't say I won't move there again. It is a lovely little town.


Friday, February 20, 2015

A 1920s musical Spoof at Boca Raton High School

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Don't Worry About the Chaperone, She's "Drowsy"

By Skip Sheffield

The Boca Raton Community High School Drama Department presents the Tony Award-winning musical comedy “The Drowsy Chaperone,” opening at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26 and running five performances only through Sunday, March 1 in the Kathryn Lindgren Theatre.
“The Drowsy Chaperone” is a 2006 parody of 1920s musical comedies with a cast of stock types and a plot centering on an engaged couple.
Young oil tycoon Robert Martin (Trevor Wayne) is engaged to Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff (Valeria Castano). The opening number, “Fancy Dress” introduces the other characters and sets up the situation. Famed impresario Feldzeig (obviously modeled on Florenz Ziegfeld) is none too happy his leading lady is giving up show business for married life. A ditzy flapper named Kitty (Hayley Adams) hopes to take Janet’s place in Feldzeig’s big show. In attendance are two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (Alec Taylor and Karlo Morales) whose boss has invested in the show.
“Drowsy” in the case of the Chaperone (Channing Ramsey) means tipsy, and she is not doing such a good a job of keeping Robert away from Janet before the marriage.
Complications ensue when Robert starts to get cold feet and tries to tap-dance those doubts away with George. The Best Man George suggests Robert go roller staking in the garden wearing a blindfold so he doesn’t see Janet, who pretends she is a French girl named Mimi. Carried away by his description of how much he loves Janet, Robert kisses “Mimi” because she reminds him so much of Janet.
Comical complications ensue, all related by the Man in Chair (Brendan Feingold), who is a Broadway fanatic and serves as narrator of the play-within-a-play while listening to a recording of a fictional 1928 comedy.
“The Drowsy Chaperone” features a huge cast of more than 30 with ambitious choreography and costumes, under the direction of Mindy Clarke. Tickets are just $10 advance and $15 after Feb. 26. Call 561-338-1533 or go to www.bocadrama.com.



Thursday, February 19, 2015

Kevin Coster Rides Again in "McFarland USA"

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Underdogs Win in “McFarland USA”

By Skip Sheffield

America loves underdogs. America loves sports. America loves Kevin Costner, who hasn’t had a good film role in many moons.
These are three things “McFarland USA” has going for it. Oh, and it is a true story based on real-life people who accomplish amazing feats.
Kevin Costner is Jim White, a bad-tempered high school football coach. In the first scene we see him get fired from his latest job for yelling at a boy and throwing something at him, drawing blood.
It is August, 1987, and White is just about out of job options. He packs up his long-suffering wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), his daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) and moves to the central California “Fruit and Vegetable Capital of America,” McFarland.
The girls are none too thrilled about this.
“Please tell me you took the wrong exit,” whines Julie.
McFarland is one of the poorest towns in America. Its population is about 90 percent Mexican and most of them are “pickers” engaged in the back-breaking work of picking fruits and vegetables by hand, sorting and packing them.
White, whose last name is particularly ironic, bombs out right away as football coach. Rather than firing him or having him quit, the Principal (Valente Rodriguez) suggests he try to organize a cross-country track team. White had absolutely zero experience with track, but he noticed the Mexican boys, who run to school after picking early in the morning, run fast and have stamina. So begins McFarland High School’s rag-tag seven-man cross country team, captained by the fastest, Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), and anchored by chubby Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez). Three of the boys are from the same Diaz family: David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Aguero) and Danny, and they get flak from their father (Omar Leyva), who thinks the picking should come first.
“McFarland” is both about the building of a miracle team and the assimilation of an Anglo family into a Chicano culture. A breakthrough comes when Julie turns 15, and the townspeople throw her “Quinceanera” coming-of-age party.
Kevin Costner comes from a hardscrabble, blue-collar family, and he is ideally-suited to play the struggling, temperamental coach who ultimately wins the respect of his team and school officials. Stay to the very end of the film and you will see the satitisfying happy endings of everyone involved.

"Welcome to Kutsher's: The Last Catskill Resort"

Also opening this weekend is a movie documentary aimed squarely at an older audience: “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskill Resort.” The title tells the tale. Kutsher’s was demolished in 2014 after 100 years of catering to a Jewish clientele in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The ballroom was used for “Dirty Dancing” dance sequences. The film features a parade of Catskill stars, both in vintage footage and reminiscing in contemporary interviews


Get Ready for Motown The Musical

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Motown’s “Hitsville, USA” Comes to Life at Broward Center

By Skip Sheffield

The “Jukebox Musical,” “Motown,” opens Tuesday, Feb. 24 and runs through March 8 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts. True to its name there are more than 40 songs covered in rapid succession in a parade of favorite hits from Berry Gordy Junior’s “hit factory” in Detroit.
Label founder, record producer and songwriter Berry Gordy is played by Clifton Oliver. Other Motown stars depicted are Alison Semmes as Diana Ross; Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye; Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves; Reed L. Shannon as Michael Jackson, Leon Outlaw as Stevie Wonder and my personal favorite, Smokey Robinson as portrayed by Jesse Nager.
“Some of the songs are only short little clips,” says Nager from a tour stop in snowy Boston. “That’s how we can fit in so many hits. I started out playing Eddie Kendricks on Broadway, then for the national tour I got moved up to Smokey. I hope I do him justice.”
Nager is a graduate of New York’s famed La Guardia School of the Performing Arts. While still in high school he performed with the likes of Mariah Carey, Shania Twain and Patti LaBelle. He is the founder of touring group the Broadway Boys.
“The last time I was in Fort Lauderdale was four or five years ago with the Broadway Boys,” he remembers. “We have a roster of about 30 performers, so the Broadway Boys can still perform when I am on tour.”
After being snowbound in Boston, Nager is grateful to be heading south.
“It’s a wonderful show and a wonderful cast- at least I think so and hope so,” he says. “What a perfect time to be returning to Fort Lauderdale. We are all ready.”
Tickets start at $34.75. Call TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or go to www.browardcenter.org.




Monday, February 16, 2015

Don Quixote Rides Again

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Alix Paige Lights Up the Stage

By Skip Sheffield

Alix Paige is dreaming her highly-possible dream. This Sunday, Feb. 15 she will perform her cabaret act at the Arts Garage, 180 N.W. First St., Delray Beach. Show time is 7 p.m.
On Thursday, Feb. 26 comes the main event. “Man of La Mancha” opens for previews at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Alix plays the dual role of Aldonza/Dulcinea opposite Broadway star George Dvorsky as Cervantes/Don Quixote.
This will be the third time Alix Paige has played the lowly, loose, serving wench who Don Quixote images to be the epitome of beauty, grace and virtue.
“She is tired and sick of life,” says Alix. “She’s stuck. She only sees the worst in life. Then Don Quixote comes along and she has hope. He completely changes her.”
“Man of La Mancha” won five Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 1965. The play is set in a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 16th century. The writer Miguel de Cervantes is on trial for heresy.  With his manservant and sidekick Sancho Panza (Michael Usura), Cervantes improvises a play in defense of his idealistic but delusional hero.
The songs of “Man of La Mancha,” with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, have become classics; especially Cervantes/Quixote’s theme song “The Impossible Dream.”
In fact the word quixotic has entered modern vocabulary to indicate a blindly optimistic, often foolish person. Other much-loved songs are “Little Bird,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” “What Does He Want of Me?” and the exquisite “Dulcinea.”
“It’s great to be back at the Wick after doing `Swing’ there,” says Alix, who is the subject of the aforementioned song. “My husband and I have moved from New York to Delray Beach. We considered Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but I’m an East Coast girl and I love the ocean we just love Delray Beach. The actors here are so welcoming and friendly. It’s like a community; a family.”
Opening night of “Man of La Mancha” is Saturday, Feb. 28. The show runs through March 28. Tickets are $58-$62. Call 561-995 2333 or go to www.thewick.org.




Friday, February 13, 2015

"Above and Beyond" An Inspiring Documentary

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“Above and Beyond” a Thrilling Documentary

By Skip Sheffield

You don’t have to be Jewish to be inspired by “Above and Beyond.” This is the story of some true American heroes who risked everything to defend the infant State of Israel in its infancy when the British withdrew from what had been Palestine in 1948.
Director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophie Sartan interviewed about a dozen surviving American pilots who volunteered to create an air force to defend Israel from five Arab nations bent on destroying it.
The story begins on May 2, 1948. Lou Lenart and Coleman Goldstein are two of the first pilots interviewed. Both were World War II veterans. Goldstein recalls all Israel had in the way of air power was a few Piper Cubs capable of lobbing Molotov cocktails. Leon Frankel, a U.S. Navy veteran, recalled the anti-Semitism in America typified by the infamous Father Coughlin. George Lichter, USAF, admits he “didn’t like being a Jew.”
“Above and Beyond” is a classic David vs, Goliath story of a handful of flyers, not all American and not all Jewish, who fought against incredible odds to defend the Israelis, surrounded on all sides by hostility. The problems began when the United Nations partitioned Palestine in February of 1947. Israel accepted the terms. The Arab nations did not.
As armed forces veterans, the fliers were able to buy surplus U.S. planes and equipment. Just getting to Israel was a challenge. The veterans took a circuitous route through Panama and thence to Brazil, Casablanca, Rome, and finally Czechoslovakia, which was the only country in the world willing to sell airplanes to the defenders. Ironically they were Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter planes, flown by Germany in World War II. The planes “required some assembly.” They were repainted with the Star of David added for identification.
The first casualty was not American and not Jewish. He was Canadian flying ace George “Buzz” Buerling, killed in a crash during a test flight. Then men gave themselves a 50-50 chance of survival. Historical figures such as Golda Meir and Simon Peres are depicted. Even Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is represented. His dad was a veteran.

“Above and Beyond” is a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg that plays like a thriller with equal parts history lesson. The statistics are grim: 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. One percent of Israel’s population was killed. The troubles continue to this day.