♦ It’s been a busy couple of weeks over at Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. On July 26, producer Howard Kagan announced that Tony winner Mandy Patinkin would be taking over the lead role of Pierre for three weeks beginning Aug. 15, replacing Hamilton alum Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who had been under contract to play the part through Sept. 4. The reason given by producers for Mandy’s involvement was that he had seen the show and was so inspired by it that he wanted to join the cast. Turns out that was not quite the whole truth. Fact is, box office receipts had been down following Josh Groban‘s departure from the show on July 2 and producers hoped to boost sales by bringing in a star name. However, the news of Mandy replacing Oak backfired on social media, with theatergoers and members of the Broadway community expressing outrage that an African American actor had been asked to step aside for a white actor. Two days later, Mandy withdrew from the show with this statement to the New York Times: “My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.” Producers subsequently released a statement clarifying their position, apologizing to everyone, and expressing their desire that Oak return to the show in September. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Onaodowan issued a statement of his own, stating that Aug. 13 would be his final performance and that he would not be returning to the show, ever. It now remains to be seen, given the show’s financial woes, just how long Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 can stay afloat.
♦ Despite having a NYC presence for almost 16 years, very few are familiar with the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, a company whose mission is to combine plays and music of a particular time period for a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience. Scripts for its productions are drawn from historical material that includes letters, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles, poetry and literature. For its 2017-18 season, the Ensemble will take up residence at the Pershing Square Signature Center, starting with Van Gogh’s Ear (Aug. 10-Sept. 10), written by ERC a.d. Eve Wolf and featuring Carter Hudson, Kevin Spirtas, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum and tenor Chad Johnson. Next up is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dec. 21–Jan. 7, 2018), followed by Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart (May 17–June 17). All three productions will be directed by Donald T. Sanders, ERC’s Director of Theatrical Productions.
♦ Casting is set for Classic Stage Company’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with Tony, Emmy, and Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn tapped to play the role of melancholy cynic Jaques. Burstyn’s last appearance on the New York stage was in the 2013 Broadway revival of Picnic, in which she played Helen Potts. Joining Burstyn in As You Like It are Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, Kyle Scatliffe as Orlando, Tyler Bernstine as Celia, André De Shields as Touchstone and Leenya Rideout as Phoebe. The production, directed by CSC a.d. John Doyle, will begin performances on Sept. 13 following a four-week run at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. The production will also feature music by composer Stephen Schwartz.
♦ Following its well-received, all-female, nude production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Prospect Park last summer, Torn Out Theater will present an all-male, nude Hamlet. Founded by Pitr Strait and Alice Mottola in August 2016, Torn Out Theater produces projects that “push the boundaries of how we see the human body and what we assume about modern sexuality. While the mission of our production of The Tempest was to project body positivity and normalize the nude female form through themes of identity and liberation found in the play, Hamlet will turn its eye to the fraught, complex world of male body image and question how the male body is perceived in America today.” Performances will take place in the park’s Music Pagoda Aug. 10-13. Admission is free.
♦ And finally, playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard passed away on Thursday, July 27 at his home in Kentucky due to complications from ALS. He was 73 years old. The most prolific playwright of his generation, Shepard had become, by the age of 40, the second most widely performed US playwright after Tennessee Williams. Starting life in New York City as a bus boy at the Village Gate, Shepard went on to write nearly 50 plays, including Chicago (1965), La Turista (1967), Cowboy Mouth (1971, w/Patti Smith), Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Tongues (1978, w/Joseph Chaikin), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985), Simpatico (1993) and his last play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) (2004). In the process, he contributed sketches for Oh! Calcutta, won seven Obies, the last for The Tooth of Crime in 1973, and took home the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1979 for what many consider his best play, Buried Child. Mr. Shepard is survived by his children, Jesse Mojo Shepard, Hannah Jane Shepard, and Samuel Walker Shepard.
Written by Richard Hart