Review: The Snow Queen, New Wolsey Theatre

One classic British Christmas tradition that we don't have here in the United States is going to see a panto. Pantos (short for pantomimes) are musical comedies aimed at families that are popular during the holiday season. I made a video a few years ago, when I lived in London and saw my first panto, talking about the tradition and what the shows are typically like.  

Obviously, pantos look a little different this year if they're happening at all. The New Wolsey Theatre is having their production of The Snow Queen available both in person and digitally. It's a great way for those in the UK who don't live nearby or can't go out in public to see the show, but it also opens it up to international audiences. If you're an American who's curious about panto, this is a great way to experience it.

The Snow Queen by Peter Rowe is a fairytale story using rock 'n' roll music. It includes lots of older songs that you will recognize like "I'm Gonna Be," "I Can See Clearly Now," and "Ring of Fire." Both costuming and performances are fun and over the top, as is befitting for a panto. 

It's a smaller cast than you would normally expect, but they do a great job of playing multiple roles. The actors also play instruments and double as the band. The show makes the most of a minimal set and uses screens onstage to occasionally show pre-filmed video montages. It's a clever way of giving the in-person audience a full experience while also presenting something to the online audience that feels like more than a traditional livestream. 

The Snow Queen is a story about two young sweethearts, Gerda (Lucy Wells) and Kay (Adam Langstaff). But romance is also brewing for Gerda's father (also played by Adam Langstaff) and Kay's mother, Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord (Steve Simmonds). When the Snow Queen (Natasha Lewis) and her minion Icicle (James Haggie) kidnap Kay, Gerda must find a way to get him back.

While they all have lovely voices, Wells is particularly charming as Gerda. Lewis shines both as the Snow Queen and as Primrose. Simmonds does an excellent job at getting the audience laughing and throwing himself whole-heartedly into the role of Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord. 

As intense as the story sounds, it's really more silly than scary and perfect for younger children despite the somewhat adult humor of Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord (which would likely go over their heads). A large part of the panto experience is audience interaction and the New Wolsey has done a great job of building that in, even for a digital audience. 

On the digital stream, you occasionally are shown the in-person audience, who are wearing masks and distanced within the theater. There is a section towards the beginning in which the Dame talks directly to the audience, cracking jokes and doing shoutouts that have been sent in. They also let you vote online to name the hammer (you have to see it to understand) during the interval. 

While it's not the same as being there in person, it's a great way to adapt it to 2020. The show opens with messages from different panto dames, counting down to the show starting. And once the show starts, they don't dance around Covid either -- addressing it in jokes head-on. 

Whether you watch it by yourself, with your family, or watch it at the same time as a friend or loved one that you're physically separated from, The Snow Queen is a fun way to get into the holiday spirit.

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Photo Credit: Mike Kwasniak

Taking a Look at the Letter Library

It's perhaps not surprising that letters are one of my favorite things considering my love for history. I adore the letters that I send back and forth with my friends, the letters that I used in my thesis research on salonnières, and the letters that inspire musicals like Starry. So when I was contacted to ask if I would like to review the Letter Library, I was so excited. It's a fantastic historical letter subscription service and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. 

If you sign up for the Letter Library, you get two letters per month from interesting historical figures sent straight to your mailbox. There's a lot of variety in the letters chosen as they span different time periods, places, and cultures, but are all from recognizable names. You also receive a synopsis that shares some of the context of the letter. You can sign up for $12 a month or subscribe in packages of three, six, or twelve months. They also have a free email newsletter. 

The letters come in lovely brown envelopes that make it feel like you're actually receiving a letter in the mail. There's also a postcard that accompanies your first letter, as seen above. The letters are designed to match the period that they are from with different fonts and colors of paper. If the letter is printed in a cursive font, there is also a transcript to go with it which is definitely helpful. 

I received four letters for the purposes of review, which ranged from the comical to the historically significant. They were from Albert Einstein, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Abigail Adams letter was the one containing the famous "Remember the ladies" line and it was amazing to get to read it within the context of the full letter. My favorite, however, was the Mozart one in which he discussed his deafness. 

As a primary source, letters are one of the best ways to learn about history. They're able to give you small details that you might not get when reading about a topic and make historical figures seem more relatable and understandable. I've always found that reading letters helps me contextualize historical figures as actual people, rather than just symbols or concepts. 

It's hard to remember to go out of your way to read a new bit of history every month. I certainly often forget to, despite my best intentions. What makes the Letter Library so great is that it delivers history straight to your mailbox in an easily digestible format. I would highly recommend this service to anyone who wants to make sure they're regularly engaging with history and it would also be a great Christmas present if you have a friend or family member who enjoys historical letters. 

For more information or to sign up, visit the Letter Library website.

Review: Peter Pan, Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

In this time of theaters where I live being closed, watching theatre digitally has become more important to me than ever. So I was thrilled when I was offered to review the Barn Theatre's new production of Peter Pan, a new play based on a favorite story of mine. I recently wrote about What a Carve Up!, an online production that the Barn Theatre was part of and it's clear that they are one of the best theaters in the UK right now at creating online content. 

This new version of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is a one man show starring Waylon Jacobs. Adapted by Alan Pollock and directed by Kirk Jameson, the show follows a man recreating his daughter's favorite bedtime story while on a video call with her from a hotel room. It's a creative way to stage the piece and it's impressive how much of the tale they are able to fit into a runtime of an hour, including direct references to and lines from Barrie's original work. The play does make a few changes to the story, including changing the "Indians" to the more appropriate "Amazons." 

Georgia Dibbs provides the adorable voice of the daughter who goads her father into a more extravagant telling of the tale, insisting, "Aren't you going to do the voices?" As the story unfolds, the staging becomes more elaborate with the hotel room set adapting itself to different places. The projections of drawings, designed by Benjamin Collins, are a very nice touch. The show is recommended for children age six and older and while it might be too intense for younger children, it's definitely perfect for school-age kids. 

Harry Smith's sound design, particularly the blending of the rain sounds in the beginning, is also impressive. If watching online as I did, you'll be seeing a livestream of the show rather than something pre-recorded. While it means that there is less flashy editing than in some filmed theatre productions, there are still multiple camera angles and it better recreates the feeling of being in a theater. 

Jacobs is very engaging and maintains a high energy throughout the show. It's admirable how he manages to carry it, without anyone else onstage. He also has a genuinely moving moment towards the end of the play that stopped me in my tracks.  This is a lovely new version of Peter Pan, sure to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. 

Peter Pan runs until January 3 at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester. Those seeing the show in person will be required to wear a face mask, have their temperature checked, and sit socially distanced. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Barn Theatre website

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Photo Credit: Eve Dunlap 

Ranking Every Star Wars Movie (A Guest Post by Hannah Ackman)

One of my greatest achievements of 2020 is that it's the year I finally managed to get my 17-year-old sister properly into Star Wars. One of her quarantine projects was watching all of the Star Wars movies (now that they're conveniently on Disney+) and she asked if she could do a ranking of the films on the blog. You might recognize Hannah from her previous guest posts on Amy March and Captain Marvel.  

During quarantine, I decided to watch all of the Star Wars movies, most of them for the first time. As I watched, I took notes and ranked them based on what I consider to be the most important qualities in a movie. Keep in mind that I am only seventeen years old, and while I am an avid movie-watcher, I ultimately just watch them for fun. 

First, you should know that I am clearly a sequels girl and Rey is my favorite character. I try to appreciate the older style and Anakin saves the prequels. The originals don’t hold a nostalgic place in my heart because I didn’t grow up watching them. Also, know that this ranking changes constantly for me, seeing as I watch about one Star Wars movie a week, so this is the most concrete I could make it. 

1) The Force Awakens (2015)

Honestly, this is such a masterpiece from the self-baking bread to the droids to the parallels drawn from the originals. It is Rey’s introduction, but we also meet Finn and Poe who are the single most iconic duo in the entire series. I strongly support Poe and Finn (“Keep it, it looks better on you”) because WHO DOESN’T? The feminism is unmatched with Rey and Leia, yet it isn’t forced. BB8 is my favorite droid (I even have a custom droid I made in Batuu named after him) and he gives this film the edge it needs to be at the top of my list. 

Additionally, this movie was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw, and it is what inspired me to watch all the others. It is my second most-watched Star Wars movie and I cannot imagine putting it anywhere except in first place. 

2) Rogue One (2016)

This is my most-watched Star Wars film and probably second most-watched film ever. Jyn is such an icon, especially when paired with Cassian (the most feminist man in the universe). There is heat, action, droids, and friendship, creating my ideal movie. The group of men (including Cassian) who fly and work on the ship are so iconic; they are just a gang having fun. The scene at the end with Darth Vader deserves a mention because it has such beautiful effects and high tension, but it is the perfect introduction to our villain and ties into the originals. 

3) The Last Jedi (2017)

What needs to be said other than I love Kylo Ren and the "force Skypes" are just so incredible to me. Don’t hate me, but I do not like Luke Skywalker. He has no loyalty, no passion, and quite frankly is rude to Rey. The scene at the end between Rey and Kylo saves the movie and is a large reason it got such a high ranking on my list. 

4) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The best of the originals, this movie has a lot of character building and iconic scenes. I love Lando personally, but the incest between Luke and Leia really bothered me having had that spoiled when I was a child. I have to appreciate the special effects for their timelessness and the vintage feel they give the movie; it might be more impressive than those used today simply because it was harder to execute. 

5) Revenge of the Sith (2005)

While I adore Padme for her resourcefulness and wit, the camaraderie between Obi-Wan and Anakin really shines in this movie. I was clearly emotional during this movie; my notes say things like “where you gonna hide that baby” and “I’m SO SAD”. Chewie’s cameo was a welcome surprise because it added a nice touch to lead into the originals. The worst part of this movie is how Padme’s character is ruined by making her seem so weak and helpless. The Padme from the first two prequels is simply not the same character whatsoever, and she would be embarrassed what they do to her in this one. 

Unpopular opinion: I hate Yoda. I think he ruins the impact of every moment because of the way he talks, his screeching nails SENT ME, and he looks like a kale gnocchi from Trader Joe’s. This animation of Yoda is also at the bottom (puppet Yoda is much better), but the effects overall are the worst out of all the movies (“that lava ain’t it”). 

The real thing that makes this movie stand out is the amazing chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman and between Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen. I do have to disagree with the ending though because there is utterly no way Obi-Wan Kenobi would have sent away the twins; he would have become their uncle and raised them as his own. It’s not up for argument. A show of its excellence is that the moment I finished it, I rewinded it and watched it again…I have since seen it four times. 

6) Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Only a few seconds into the movie, I started disliking it over a tiny detail: the weird text. Why is it blue? Why doesn’t it scroll? Anyways, the part with Chewie was my favorite because it is just so cute. I found myself really bothered that it wasn’t Harrison Ford, although I realize that it would have been impossible to use him. My Lando obsession was satisfied, especially with the line “the grown-ups are talking." What. An. Icon. Qi’ra is very pretty and another strong female lead who, honestly, I found boring until the end. L3 takes the place of my second favorite droid because of her snarky comments about women’s rights. Not a movie I would watch every day or even once a month, but will I watch it again someday? Yes, without a doubt. 

7) A New Hope (1977)

I have mixed feelings on this movie because while I realize it is a classic, I find it very boring. However, I do like some of the characters from the originals such as Han and Leia. Han is a classic cocky pilot (do I have a type?) who is too charming to be good. In the originals overall, I hate every single scene with Jabba the Hutt because not only is he a sexist slug thing, but also I have to read subtitles (way too much work). While I would watch it again just for the little moments that are cute, I would never choose this over some of the other Star Wars movies. 

8) Attack of the Clones (2002)

There is so much good in this: the costuming, the iconic line about sand, Padme’s weirdly good climbing skills, but I have so many questions. Why does Anakin have a tiny braid? Why can R2D2 all the sudden fly? Did Padme’s shirt just disappear? Fett’s child really annoyed me, to the point I physically wanted to scream. The battle is far too long, in my opinion, but honestly I liked it. Padme is a strong female lead, she is a good political leader, and she is shown as being very capable. I finally understood everyone’s obsession with Obi-Wan, and I would watch again solely to see the scene where all three of them are tied up in the arena. 

9) The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

I will not deny being a very avid Kylo Ren fan, so it is no wonder that this movie ranked so low on my list. There were so many issues, I don’t think I can even cover them all. The ending lost major points, primarily because the filmmakers revealed that they had a different cut originally. All that pain was for nothing and I blame J.J. Abrams. Pro-tip: just stop the movie with 17:31 minutes left. 

Most of my problems come from bad decisions regarding diversity. Poe Dameron is previously shown as the Han-type of man who is cocky but also charming and sweet, not to mention him being the first major Star Wars Latino character. That being said, does absolutely anyone know why they decided to make him a “spice-runner”, practically the most disrespectful thing they could have done? They didn’t stop at the ruin of one POC character though, they had to also try to erase Rose’s presence and her entire plot line that was built in The Last Jedi. Without a doubt, they went for important fan moments such as the force ghosts in the temple (even including Ahsoka!) and a cameo from Lando Calrissian. Overall, I try to pretend this movie didn’t happen and I have only watched it twice (once in theaters, once for this article). 

10) Return of the Jedi (1983)

I said it already, but I’ll say it again: I HATE JABBA THE HUTT. This movie only heightened my hatred as not only did I have to go through the work of reading subtitles, but he is sexually abusing Leia. Another note on that scene is that I felt very let down by the entire sequence. I had heard about the iconic gold-bikini scene on other TV shows and on social media, but I felt very uncomfortable and underwhelmed. Yes, Leia is beautiful, but she looks awkward and I’m sure Carrie Fisher hated filming it. Han continues to improve, and in this movie, he has total Mamma Mia vibes. I don’t know how to explain it, but he does. They show Luke “turning to the dark side”, but I didn’t believe it for a second because it is so out of character for him. As much as I hate older Luke, young Luke is soft and cute. Overall, I like the bears, but I do not plan on ever watching this again. 

11) The Phantom Menace (1999)

Finally, we have reached the last film on my list. One I hope to never watch again, my apologies to Qui-Gon Jinn who is only featured in this one movie. The effects are terrible, Jar Jar Binks makes me want to slam my head into a wall, and it’s far too political compared to the rest of the franchise. I viewed it as more of a children’s film in the language used, yet it was very boring during their long political discussions. It wasn’t all bad though: tiny Anakin is perfect, my man Darth Maul tries to run over a random child in the desert, and they imply that Anakin is basically Jesus since he was born to a virgin mother. Overall, this film is embodied by one of my notes that I don’t remember even writing: “umm no”. 

These eleven movies are so special to three generations, and it’s insane how important they have become in my life just over the past eight months. I cannot wait to visit Batuu Galaxy’s Edge again and understand everything Disney has done to make it perfectly represent the world from the films. I also plan on watching Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, and other Star Wars content that is produced in the upcoming years. Most excitingly, both Nicole and I are asking for lightsabers for Christmas this year, so expect spinning content coming after December 25th. 

By Hannah Ackman

Interview: TYLER TAFOLLA, Seasons: A New Musical Song-Cycle

Tyler Tafolla is a performer, director, and musical theatre writer with experience working in New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego. He has recently released a concept album for his new song cycle musical, Seasons

To start off, how did you first become interested in musical theatre?

When I was eight years old and they realized I wasn’t doing great in sports, my parents put me into the local youth theatre company. I don’t remember this, but my mom says right after the audition, I told her, “I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life.” I grew up doing theatre and watching a healthy diet of Disney and Spielberg and movie musicals. I think we rented out the VHS of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan from the library every week. 

I was never truly trained until I went to college, but I had a huge passion for it growing up. I didn’t really take voice lessons or do the usual stuff that kids who eventually do this do. I was just a sponge and I loved the medium. In high school, I was really into Spielberg and I didn’t know if I wanted to get into movies or if I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to do something within the arts and within the medium of telling stories. I loved storytelling and characters and when you fall in love with a character more than anything. I ended up going to college for musical theatre at AMDA and got my BFA in Musical Theatre. My world kind of led me to this point where now I’m writing and doing stuff full time with musicals which is so awesome. 

What made you start writing?

In high school, I was writing little skits and sketches for my friends to do and making home movies because we were bored. My senior year of high school, they were looking to do a new musical and I, being the ballsy teenager I was back then, asked if they’d do it if someone wrote something original. I had this idea in the back of my head already for a story and I was like, “Yeah I’ll just turn this into a musical.” I was totally fearless! 

I finished the first draft of my first musical and it was really bad, but it was finished. They were like, “We’re going in a different direction,” and I think they did Fiddler or something. But I had this first draft of this musical in my back pocket. The show is called Scott Robbins and the Traveling Show and I’ve produced and done stuff with it since. 

They have a program at AMDA, where I did my four year BFA, called The Student Vision. You can pitch original musicals to this board of faculty and staff. If they like it, they’ll let you put up your musical. It’s all student-led, student-directed, with student actors. So halfway through college, I thought, I have this crappy first draft that has really good potential, I think I should do something with it. I wanted to find a way to stand out from the crowd because a lot of the teachers and staff were working professionals. As those in college for musical theatre know, there’s a lot of us and there were a lot of boys at that time that looked exactly like me, but sang and danced a lot better than me. 

At that point at AMDA, no one had done a fully finished musical; they’d done a song cycle or fifteen minutes of a show. So I thought I’d do the first fully finished totally original musical. A year after I first heard about the program, I’d finished a new draft of the script and all new songs. I pitched it to them and they liked it. I eventually workshopped it all the way to doing a two weekend run at AMDA with this show that had been in my head since high school. 

I kind of fell into becoming a writer. I was originally just going to do the book and get someone else to do the music and lyrics. Then, I thought I would do the music and get someone else to do lyrics. I kept trying to get people to help me work on this and eventually it got to a point where I needed to finish it because no one else was going to do it for me. It became this sort of mission of mine, if you will, just to finish it because I believe in the story and the characters I’ve created. 

Can you share a bit about Seasons

Seasons is a new musical song cycle. It’s about six friends who, within the span of six years, go within all the big milestone seasons of their life: high school, college, marriage, divorce, jobs, careers, kids. It hits all the big marks in their life. A lot of the characters go through spouts of asking, “Why do seasons have to change? Why can’t we just stay the same?” It’s about kids becoming adults, learning why having seasons of their lives is a good thing. They learn throughout the span of it that we as humans don’t always have control over our lives and where our lives go. But after the good and the bad happen, we have the choice of where we can go from there. 

It’s been a fun labor of love. I had little melodies that I’ve written here and there during my time in college that I’d never really used. After pitching the other show, Scott Robbins, over the years to different theaters and venues, I wanted to do something smaller with a smaller cast of three girls and three guys that didn't need a lot of set pieces. 

I’m really inspired by people by Jason Robert Brown and Pasek and Paul and I saw that they started off doing song cycles. So I wanted to dip my feet in that and doing something that was nonlinear was a fun little challenge. We were going to perform it earlier this summer in 2020, but because of everything...that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, around March when all this went down, I thought to myself, I have all of these songs finished and I want to do something with them. I want everyone to have a new musical to listen to this year even though Broadway closed. I thought I’d just turn it into a concept album, stream it online, and make it a fundraiser because Broadway and everyone are struggling right now.

We premiered it on October 15. I got a couple of artists that are pretty well known in the theatre community like Mariah Rose Faith, Desi Oakley, and Adante Carter. They were all totally into it and wanted to be a part of it. I just wanted to give people something to look forward to still within this weird year and something that they can jam out in the car to. 

What were your musical influences for Seasons?

The sound of the show is very inspired by the music I was listening to in high school. You’ve got stuff that sounds like Billy Joel, The Cure, Mumford & Sons, and Green Day. It hits the greatest hits of what Tyler was listening to back then, and I still listen to it now. I think it was Lin Manuel Miranda who said that the music that will be the most important to you is what you were listening to in high school. So if you were to put in Tyler’s mix CD from high school, this is the kind of sound that would come out of it. It’s a nice mix of fun stuff you can rock out to and songs you can get really introspective and heavy with.

What was recording a concept album during a pandemic like? 

It was nuts, but it was awesome though! Most of my contact with people was through either social media or email. I didn’t see anyone in person during that time, except my girlfriend Megan [Kuramoto-Monroe] who is on the album and is living with me. The only other person I saw was Mariah who came down for us to shoot the music video, socially distanced. 

I sent everyone the tracks and told them the feel of the song and the style and said, “Have at it! Go wild with it, be free, have fun.” I sent them the sheet music and let them get creative on their own side of things. They sent me back tracks of their audio and we just dropped it into what we were working on over here. 

I’m in San Diego right now and we were getting people from New York and LA and all over to put this together. It was a fun two to three month time where I was getting tracks from people. My brother Ryan and I were doing the mix in our garage. It sounds way better than the capacity in which we were creating it. That’s a testament to all these artists’ talent and their abilities because they are so good on this. I listen to Desi Oakley and I cry. We were mixing and doing live instruments, drums and guitar. A lot of this, I was Garageband-ing and then we were able to go back and layer in all of the real live stuff. It was so cool to see it all come together. 

How did you assemble this fantastic cast?

It’s a mixture of the people I know, the people who are available, and the people who I’m very inspired by and have wanted to work with over the years. Me and Mariah had wanted to work together and we finally got to work on this. 

A lot of the people, I was just reaching out to. You know the Starry musical. That team is so awesome and I was able to reach out to them and a lot of the people who worked on this worked on Starry. I wanted to reach out to these people because I knew they were available because nothing is going on right now. It was the perfect time to get all these really talented people that I’ve admired from afar together to do this. 

It felt like the right piece to work on for right now too. The feelings we’re singing about are very topical. I never expected the songs to ring this true during this time. I listen back to these lyrics and these songs and I see them with different eyes now. 

Are you hoping to fully stage Seasons when life is back to being a bit more normal? 

I am hopeful for any capacity this could be in. With Seasons, this is a show that can live without big sets and in concert style. If you make it too big, it could lose its charm. The show is meant to feel like you’re opening someone’s photo album or journal or yearbook from their life. 

I’m hopeful for theatre to come back soon, so I would love for that to happen. I’m discovering all of this as I go. I’m looking up bloggers and people to write about it and to talk to because I believe in the story and the characters and the artists that are on this. I want them to be seen and be out there right now. It’s so easy to get lost in the waves of social media and the news. I’ve been doing all my own marketing for the show and my own music and Scott Robbins. I’ve been doing it on my own. I want so desperately to work with people. I want to work in the theatre and be doing stuff on a bigger scale than I am. 

Getting your work out there is a challenge even in good circumstances, but especially right now, I imagine. 

The more talk that it gets, the more people share it on social media and on the internet, that’s how these things stay alive. Starry is the way it is right now because people shared it. I love Starkid and I grew up watching A Very Potter Musical and their popularity is from word of mouth. It’s from people talking about it over blogs and the internet and all of that. Unfortunately for new content right now, that’s the only way it can stay alive. Even this last season of Broadway, there wasn’t a lot of original stuff that wasn’t coming from a movie or an album from a well-known artist. Any original stuff that you want to do now is so difficult which is why i’m so thankful for people like you who are preaching about the good news of original art right now and keeping people like me afloat. It inspires me to see that there’s still an appetite for original new stuff. 

It’s funny that you mention Starkid, because my best friend finally got me into watching their shows during quarantine. 

I was inspired by them too. When I was in high school, AVPM had just come out and it was the first time I saw young people writing new stuff. It was based on Harry Potter, but it was still their creation with their own inside jokes. It gave me the freedom to be like, “Oh I can do that!” You don’t need a big budget. You don’t need the Shubert Organization backing you for people to see new stuff with the help of the Internet. 

So you’re donating part of the proceeds from the album to Broadway Cares: Equity Fights Aids and Feeding America. Can you tell me a bit about that decision? 

To put it bluntly, the world is on fire. I knew at the beginning of this in March that everyone needs help right now. Then I realized Broadway was slowly dying and the theatre world in general is not surviving. So I thought: how can I, being the little person with my megaphone on my soapbox, do my part during all of this? There’s plenty to be angry about or talking about right now. One time, I heard someone say, “I’m only one but I’m still one.” If I can only do this little amount, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities. Even though I cannot save the theatre community as a whole, I can still do everything I can try to make a difference. 

This is a heavy question, I know, but what do you think the importance of art is in the middle of the crisis -- both health crisis but also political crisis -- that we’re currently in? 

I’ve learned this through the two musicals that I’ve put out. I think of it like how the 1970s happened and the Vietnam War was happening and all these terrible things were going on and Star Wars came out and it sort of ignited people’s ideas of fantasy and escapism. On the one hand, theatre is a great place for escapism and escaping your troubles. 

On the other side, you have something like Seasons which is still nostalgic in the sense of music, but is talking about stuff that we are currently going through. But it doesn’t feel heavy handed. It says, let’s sit down and talk about what we’re feeling and what’s going on and that this sucks right now. I think theatre is both sides of that coin: it can be escapism, but also a safe place to feel people with the hope to keep going. It’s not someone yelling at you like on the news, but a place that we can talk about it and heal. Theatre for me has always been a healing place. If I can be that, if I can provide that for somebody, that would be great. 

To find out more about Tyler, you can check out his website or follow him on Instagram. To listen to Seasons, you can stream it on all music platforms or purchase it online. Proceeds will help raise money for Broadway Cares: Equity Fights Aids and Feeding America.

Review: What a Carve Up!

Alfred Enoch as Raymond Owen

RATING: ★★★★

With every year, it feels like the lines become more blurred between movies and television and theatre. This year, it's more true than ever with the release of the filmed Hamilton on Disney+ and Covid shutting down almost all live theatre. The Barn Theatre, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and the Wolsey Theatre have teamed up to bring audiences a new production: What a Carve Up! Henry Filloux-Bennet's adaptation of Jonathan Coe's 1994 novel certainly couldn't be staged as a traditional live play, but was made by a series of theatres in the United Kingdom to be consumed digitally. One bright spot to a show like this being digital is that people all over the world can buy a ticket to see it. 

This production radically reimagines the novel it's based on, with a new character looking back on the events and trying to piece together the truth. Raymond Owen (Alfred Enoch) is making an amateur documentary about the murders supposedly committed by the father he never knew in 1991 when he was only an infant. The victims are six members of the Winshaw family, a corrupt group involved in everything from embezzlement to arms dealing to sexual assault. This murder mystery touches on many topics relevant to today, including Covid, the Me Too movement, and the ineptitude of the police. The show is suitable for those age 16 and older as it does contain strong language and descriptions of sensitive topics. 

Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button as the Interviewer and Josephine Winshaw-EavesAdd caption

The show is well-edited together in a sort of documentary style. It mixes clips of Enoch talking to the camera with lots of photos and stock video footage, with voiceovers of "interviews" with people involved with the murder case. Additionally, there are clips from an interview with Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), the last remaining member of the Winshaw family. Josephine is an entitled woman who complains about having to go to Charterhouse instead of Eton and is, unsurprisingly, a Trump supporter. Under Tamara Harvey's direction, it comes together seamlessly, feeling somewhere between an actual video essay on YouTube and a Netflix documentary. 

Enoch is the heart of the piece, giving a very engaging performance and managing to make a strong emotional impact even given the non-traditional format. Button manages to make Josephine an easily recognizable rich and cocky celebrity-type, but also makes her agitation anytime a sensitive topic comes up very believable. Tamzin Outhwaite is great as the interviewer and the voice cast for the audio interviews is impressive, including Celia Imrie, Stephen Fry, and Sir Derek Jacobi

Fiona Button as Josephine Winshaw-EavesAdd caption

While What a Carve Up! does struggle with pacing at times, it's very gripping towards the end. Fans of last year's Knives Out or classics like Clue are sure to enjoy the show. With a run time of less than two hours, it's easy to stick with the innovative format. It's certainly unlike anything I've ever watched before and it's exciting to see theatres finding ways to safely create content and keep theatre alive. 

At one point, Raymond remarks, "I'm just so tired." It's a 2020 mood and especially apt for this week in America as we face a very stressful election, but this is the perfect break from real life. 

The play has performances nightly until November 29, 2020. Tickets can be purchased online and links are active for a 48-hour period. People within the UK can purchase a premium ticket which includes a physical programme and dinner recipe card curated by chef Asma Khan. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Why Captain Marvel is the Most Powerful Avenger (Guest Post by Hannah Ackman)

My teenage sister Hannah previously wrote a piece on my blog about Amy March and Greta Gerwig's Little Women. She's back today with a piece on her favorite Marvel superhero and keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming piece all about her newfound love for Star Wars...

In 2019, Marvel released their first solo film of a female character starring Brie Larson. It was the fifth-highest grossing film of 2019 and the 23rd of all time. Brie Larson trained hard for nine-months to do her own stunts in the movie, essentially becoming Carol Danvers as much as possible in her physique and strength. That dedication transferred into her embodiment of the character in filming, filling the spot of an iconic feminist character for Marvel fans all over the world. There are so many female characters highlighted in the films, but there is something about Captain Marvel that makes her different. Maybe I am biased, as she is my favorite character, but I think it comes down to three main things. 

One: She has her own movie! She is the first (and only) female avenger to have a solo movie thus far. Marvel originally wanted to release the first female solo superhero movie but was beat by Sony with their Wonder Woman movie. However, I think that the intensity, art, and power shown in Captain Marvel far outranks Wonder Woman (sorry!). Additionally, there is no love interest shown. She has friends, Nick Fury and Maria Rambeau, but there is no canon romance. Better yet, it was directed by Anna Boden, a female! 

Two: She isn’t sexy! She is not used for her beauty, sex appeal, or being a girl. A man could do everything she does, she is incredible because of her powers and personality not because of her gender. Her costume is very covering; it features pants and long sleeves, which is ideal for fighting. Most of the other female superheroes, in both Marvel and DC, have low-cut revealing tops, short skirts, and outfits that are impractical for the dangerous situation they experience. Captain Marvel even is sometimes seen with her hair tucked up into a helmet, another practical feature usually reserved for the male heroes. 

Three: She is amazing before she gets her powers when she is an air force pilot. Let me repeat that, she is in the air force! As a girl! Since Carol was a child, she wanted to fly planes but that was seen as unachievable for a female. She was belittled, teased, and talked down to, but eventually she still made it alongside her friend Maria Rambeau. Discovering her powers only made her strength more accessible, she already had powers before that she had worked for herself. 

These reasons and more are why I will always idolize Captain Marvel and vote for her as the best Avenger. 

By Hannah Ackman

Review: Molly Brown House Museum (Denver, Colorado)

Last year (back when we could still go out and do things), I went on a work trip to Denver, Colorado. I took an earlier flight out so that I could fit in a few historic sites and the one I was most excited to see was the Molly Brown House Museum. I've had these photos and notes sitting for over a year, so I thought it was finally time to share them. 

Margaret Brown might be known as "the Unsinkable Molly Brown," but she was never actually called Molly. It's a nickname given to her by the musical and film about her that has persisted so strongly that most people likely don't know her real name was Margaret. She was a philanthropist, activist, and socialite who had a home in the once fashionable Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver for many years. 

Margaret Tobin was born in Missouri to Irish Catholic immigrant parents. At the age of nineteen, she married 31-year-old J.J. Brown who was equally poor but with whom she was very much in love. They had two children, Lawrence and Catherine, born soon after their marriage. Fortunately, J.J. struck gold in Colorado in the 1890s and the family were instant millionaires. They moved to Denver and bought the home that is now the Molly Brown Museum. In 1909, J.J. and Margaret legally separated but they remained on good terms for the rest of their lives. 

Margaret was passionate about education and employed tutors for herself, learning five or six languages. Both of her children were sent to French boarding schools. Margaret became involved in many causes from women's suffrage to miners rights to maritime law. She helped create the juvenile court system and even ran for Senate. However, she dropped out of the Senate race to volunteer in France when World War I broke out. When her son Larry was temporarily blinded in the war, she learned Braille. She was eventually awarded the French Legion of Honor. 

Margaret was famously a passenger on the Titanic and survived the crossing. While she is most known for trying to convince the lifeboat she was in to return to try to save people in the icy water, she also raised $10,000 for Titanic passengers while they were aboard the ship that rescued them, the Carpathia. When the wealthy survivors didn't donate their money quickly enough, she publicly shamed those who hadn't given until they did. This money was used to help second- and third-class passengers upon docking in New York. 

Margaret took acting classes and was even in a few plays towards the end of her life. She died in 1932 at the age of 65 due to a stroke. While "the Unsinkable Molly Brown" has become a mythic figure in American history, the truth of her life is arguably even more fascinating. 

The house itself is a lovely Victorian home designed by architect William A. Lang. It was built in 1889, with all of the best modern features of the time: electricity, central heating, indoor plumbing, and a telephone. The Browns purchased the house from Isaac and Mary Large in 1894 for $30,000. Four years later, they changed over the house to be in Margaret's name. The Browns added on the porch, grand staircase, and back porch. The house, which is decorated in a lavish style, is close to Capitol Hill and other museums. In addition to the Browns' two children, Margaret's parents lived with them for many years and it's easy to imagine it as a bustling and busy home. 

In 1970, the house was almost torn down and replaced with a parking lot. Luckily, it was acquired by Historic Denver. It has now been restored to its 1910 appearance based on historic photographs, written descriptions of the home, and paint-chip analysis. It's filled with furniture, linens, books, and other pieces to make you feel like you've stepped back in time. It's set up as the house would have been right before the Garden Party held that year, to which 800 guests were invited. They also have small exhibits about the other people who have lived in the house. 

When I went, I had a great guided tour by a nice and very knowledgable tour guide. I would definitely recommend getting their early to secure your spot on the tour because they do fill up (at least they do...when we're not dealing with a pandemic). They have a neat little gift shop that you can browse through while waiting for your tour time (I bought some gifts to bring back to my family). There is a small fee for the tour, which lasts forty-five minutes, but it's worth it to help keep this amazing museum running. 

If you're ever in Denver, a tour of the Molly Brown Museum is the number one thing that I recommend you do. You can visit their website to learn more about Margaret Brown and the museum. You can also find information about their measures for ensuring safety while visiting during the pandemic. 

April Favorites

So if March lasted 500 days, then April lasted about 5 days, right? Time moves differently in quarantine, I guess. I honestly feel like I'm as busy as before between still working full time and doing lots of writing, but I'm hoping to start reteaching myself an instrument in May.

the crown season 3
I loved Seasons 1 and 2 of "The Crown," so I was super excited to finally get around to watching Season 3. I was so blown away by Helena Bonham Carter and Josh O'Connor's performances as Princess Margaret and Princes Charles. The entire cast is amazing and I can't wait to see where Season 4 will take us.

new girl 
I had watched the first two-ish seasons of "New Girl" during college but then got distracted. I wanted an easy half-hour episode TV show to watch during quarantine, so I decided to restart this from the beginning. Maybe it's that I'm a bit older now, but I'm enjoying it so much more this time. My friend Julie is also watching it and it's so fun to talk about together. I can admit that I'm a total Jess Day...and maybe a little bit Schmidt too.

We've started our 2014 Retrospective over on Next Best Picture and the first film I watched for it was Ava DuVernay's "Selma." I'd never seen it before and I was absolutely blown away by it and what a great portrait it is of Martin Luther King Jr. You can listen to our podcast review and read my review.

Maggie and I did a special episode of "Petticoats & Poppies" in which we brought on my friend Alexis, who recently graduated from law school, as a guest. We discussed the film "Loving" and Alexis provided her legal expertise about the court case it's centered around. I was so impressed by this quiet and intimate film with fantastic performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. You can listen to the episode here.

the bling ring
I rewatched "The Bling Ring" for the first time in years as part of a piece I wrote in honor of Emma Watson's birthday. I truly think that it's some of Sofia Coppola's best work and I don't think anyone can argue it's not one of Watson's best performances.

the hunchback of notre dame studio cast recording 
My neighbors probably hate this album by now. I started listening to this because "Out There" is my favorite Disney song of all time, but then fell in love with the whole album. (Partially because I just really love Patrick Page.) I would love to see this show make it to Broadway one day.

the trail to oregon 
So...I'll have a more extensive post on this coming soon, but in the past month I've watched five StarKid Productions musicals. I had never seen any of them before despite being vaguely aware of the group since high school, but I finally decided to watch some alongside my friend Alexis (also mentioned above) who is a fan. "The Trail to Oregon" is easily one of my favorites thus far, maybe because I was such a nerd about pioneers growing up.

the guy who didn't like musicals
My favorite of the StarKid shows is definitely "The Guy Who Didn't Like Musicals," one of their most recent ones. It's actually easily my favorite musical I've seen for the first time in 2020. The score is fantastic, the cast is great, and the humor is top-notch.

oregon trail 
In preparation to watch "The Trail to Oregon," Alexis recommended that I play a few rounds of the game Oregon Trail because I somehow never played it growing up. I found a version online and now I'm absolutely addicted to it. Maybe it's because I was obsessed with the actual Oregon Trail in elementary school or maybe I just enjoy being able to focus on something small for a little while, but it's brought me so much joy.

tik tok 
Yes, I finally did it. I downloaded Tik Tok. Not only that, but I started making videos; this is what happens when you have a Gen Z sibling, I guess. But actually I'm kind of addicted to watching Star Wars, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and theatre themed videos. My username on there is nicoleackman16 if you want to follow me.

567 broadway 
I made a YouTube video last year about Joseph Corella's 567 Broadway program. You can buy the DVD or digital copy of the full program or check out his videos on YouTube. Joseph teaches you choreography to songs from Broadway shows; it's a way to exercise without feeling like you're working out. I am an ambassador for the program, but I've honestly been doing them so often since quarantine began because they're a great way to get moving without the pressure of working out. They always lift my mood, but my personal favorite is the Mamma Mia themed video on YouTube.

What did you enjoy in the month of April? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments below x

Review: Burgwin-Wright House (Wilmington, North Carolina)

My family has a condo at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and I've grown up going there my entire life. However, other than going to the Battleship, I recently realized that I had never been to any of the historic sites in Wilmington. So the last time we were down at the coast a few weeks ago (before all of this Covid-19 panic happened), we decided to choose a house and go to it. We sort of picked one at random, but I think we set the bar high for future historic site adventuring.

The Burgwin-Wright House is the oldest property in Wilmington and the only house remaining from the colonial era that is open to the public. It's a beautiful example of Georgian architecture and a great way to learn about what life was like in Wilmington before the Revolutionary War. When the house is open to the public, you can take a guided tour with one of their docents. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgable and did a great job at answering questions and keeping everyone engaged.

The Burgwin-Wright House sits on the property that once housed the original Wilmington jail, which was built in 1744. After failed attempts by the local wealthy men to get the city to move the jail away from the city center, it mysteriously burned down in 1768. John Burgwin bought the land and by 1771  was living on a house built on the site. The outdoor and basement jail cells still exist and can be seen on the tour.

John Burgwin was the second son of an English merchant who immigrated to America in hopes of making his fortune. He started out in Charleston, but later moved to Wilmington. He was known to be tall and charming made his fortune as a merchant before also becoming a plantation owner and government official. His political career included everything from being Justice of the Peace to the personal secretary to the royal governor. When he married Margaret Haynes, her family eventually gave the couple over 1,000 acres of land including Castle Haynes and Hermitage Plantation.

In 1799, Burgwin sold his town house to Joshua Grainger Wright, a member of the family for whom Wrightsville Beach is named. by 1846, there were eight children living in the house so the Wright family made an addition that doubled the square footage of the house. The last member of the Wright family to live in the house died in 1930 and the house almost was torn down for a gas station. However, the Colonial Dames of America in North Carolina saved it and turned it into a historic site.

The house is now presented as it was in 1770. (The addition is used as office space and storage.) Even the paint has recently been restored to its 1770 appearance. The house boasts a handful of pieces original to the Burgwin and Wright families and is otherwise filled with mostly European period pieces. One of the most lovely pieces is the 1810 Boston pianoforte. The house was built with long leaf pine, which is still oozing sap. Not many buildings made of this wood remain because it is so flammable. Because the house is still shifting, the floors are slightly sloped which can be vertigo inducing for some and at least a bit strange for others.

The guided tour I was on did a great job of balancing discussing the house itself, the Burgwin family, and the enslaved workers who lived in the house. While they don't know that much about the specific people who worked in the house because of a lack of records, they do know that the Burgwins had at least ten enslaved workers in the house at any given time, with many more on their plantations. It's refreshing to see a site that embraces its complicated history rather than ignoring it.

The house is now presented as it was in 1770. (The addition is used as office space and storage.) Even the paint has recently been restored to its 1770 appearance. The house boasts a handful of pieces original to the Burgwin and Wright families and is otherwise filled with mostly European period pieces. One of the most lovely pieces is the 1810 Boston pianoforte. The house was built with long leaf pine, which is still oozing sap. Not many buildings made of this wood remain because it is so flammable. Because the house is still shifting, the floors are slightly sloped which can be vertigo inducing for some and at least a bit strange for others.

When I visited, the house was in the midst of renovations (hence the scaffolding on the outside in my photo). You can also visit the free-standing kitchen behind the house which would originally have been the jailor's quarters. There are also colonial gardens, including a kitchen garden and fig trees, that you can explore. The next time you're in Wilmington, I highly recommend checking out this beautiful and history-filled home. If you would like more information about the Burgwin Wright House, you can visit their website.

March Favorites

March feels like it was a year long. It's strange to think about how March started and how we've progressed to this point of quarantine. I hope you're all staying healthy, washing your hands, and hanging in there.

in the time we lost by carrie hope fletcher 
I finally got around to Carrie Hope Fletcher's latest novel, "In The Time We Lost," and I read the whole thing in just a few days! I love her style of magical realism and while the book absolutely broke my heart, I loved it.

the mandalorian
I finally got around to watching "The Mandalorian" and I really enjoyed it. It took me a couple of episodes to properly get into it, but the last few episodes are truly great. And of course...Baby Yoda is super adorable.

jane eyre (2006)  
I watched the 2006 BBC mini-series of "Jane Eyre" for a podcast (more on that later) and was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. Charlotte Bronte is normally not my cup of tea, but this adaptation with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson is really wonderful.

I was nervous about seeing Autumn de Wilde's new adaptation of "Emma" because it's my favorite Jane Austen novel and I'm very fond of the 1996 film with Gwyneth Paltrow. But I was absolutely delighted with this new version. I highly recommend you rent it if you're looking for something to watch!

I'm not a huge Pixar fan, but I do love Tom Holland so I was excited to see "Onward." I got to take my sister to a press night and was so charmed by this film and its lovely message about sibling love. You can read my full review here.

I can't believe I hadn't seen "Gifted" before, but I finally fixed that. What a heartwarming story! McKenna Grace is the most talented young actress, more than many women three times her age. And of course, Chris Evans as a father figure is exactly what I would like from a film.

most of us are strangers by seafret
I recently discovered Seafret's first album so of course I was thrilled when they released their second album this month. I absolutely love the sound of this British duo. My favorite songs from the album are definitely "Be My Queen" and "Girl I Wish I Didn't Know."

petticoats & poppies: history girls at the movies podcast
My dear friend Maggie and I launched our own podcast during the month of March! On it, we review period dramas from the perspective of two women who are trained as historians but work in the film industry in some way. This month we did episodes on "Emma." and the BBC miniseries of "Jane Eyre." You can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Twitter, and Instagram.

I think I've actually been socializing more than I normally do since quarantine started. I only have a handful of friends in North Carolina; my friends are pretty spread out across the United States and even the world, so I'm kind of used to keeping up with people over the Internet. I've been having a lot of Skype, Facetime, and Zoom chats with people, much more than normal. I think that it's so important to see people digitally face to face while we're isolated; it makes it all a lot easier to handle.

What did you all enjoy during the month of March? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter. x

Introducing Petticoats & Poppies: History Girls at the Movies

I'm so thrilled to announce that my friend Maggie and I have just launched a new podcast called Petticoats & Poppies: History Girls at the Movies. On it, we will discuss period dramas from the perspectives of two women who have experience working in both history and film. I'm so excited to be able to share it with you all now and especially to have something that we can create and spread from home, responsibly social distancing during this pandemic. 

Our first episode is called "Emma.: Costume Design and...Butts?" We discuss the new film "Emma." which is based on my favorite Austen novel and how it fares both of an adaptation of a book and as a historical period film.

You can listen now on Spotify and Libsyn and we're coming soon to Apple Podcasts. Make sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram!

A Love Letter to Amy March (Guest Post by Hannah Ackman)

Back in December on the night that I first saw Greta Gerwig's "Little Women," I wrote a love letter to Jo March. I detailed all the ways in which she had shaped me as a person and how Greta's adaptation perfectly brought her, and all the March sisters, to life. My 16-year-old little sister Hannah has long been a fan and avid defender of Amy March, way before it was cool to love her. She asked if she could write a piece for me to post on this blog about her relationship with Amy March. Of course (because I am part Meg March too), I said yes. 

I grew up being told I was Amy March. While most people would take offense to that, I was thrilled. I don't remember a specific moment that I saw a film of "Little Women" for the first time. I probably watched it long before I could understand half of what was being discussed. It seems it has been a part of me from my first moments. I still find myself in the story, specifically in the character of Amy.

However, in every adaptation I had seen, Amy March is portrayed as a spoiled brat who doesn't deserve anything she gets. She has "a way of getting out of the hard parts of life." Everyone always hates her, but I've never understood that. I saw her as ambitious and charming and, yes, a bit jealous. Growing up with a sister like Jo or Meg isn't easy; I would know. (Nicole is perfect, trust me.)

Even in my childhood, Amy was everything I wanted to be. I understood her frustration with her sisters, especially Jo, and her jealousy. My family couldn't understand it and honestly still can't today. They say burning a manuscript is terribly petty, but it is consistently among my favorite moments from the story in any version. I actively declare Amy as my favorite and it's useless to try and argue with me because it just makes me love her more. (Perhaps, that's another thing that Amy and I have in common.) The more I learned about her, the more I idolized her and the more I realized the faults in the movie adaptations. After all if she's as bad as people think, what does it say about Laurie that he would marry someone like her?

Upon watching the trailer for Greta Gerwig's adaptation, I couldn't believe her view on the story matched mine. I must have replayed it around six times before I had to return to my school day, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Greta portrays Amy as determined, refined, and perhaps a bit spoiled. I had never related more. Beyond that, Florence Pugh is talented, dramatic, and a little sister herself - making her the perfect fit to portray my beloved Amy March.

I had heard of Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, and Timothée Chalamet and already loved Meryl Streep. But brilliant as they all are, it was Florence who I knew from the start was perfect for her role. I couldn't understand why, but I felt secure that I was going to love it.

Months later, the day after Christmas, I finally got to see Greta Gerwig's masterpiece. As predicted, I was stunned by Florence Pugh's performance. She perfectly embodies Amy in the tilt of her chin, her whining voice, her ignoring Meg's advice, and most importantly her evident adoration of Jo. I had never thought of Jo and Amy as being similar in any way, but it turns out that they're practically twins. Laura Dern really shows how Marmee herself is reflected back in each of the girls. She also gave me an insight into my own mother's life and how, like Amy, I have chosen a different path.

This new Amy has such a clear purpose to her actions from the very beginning. She loves fiercely, fights for her place bravely, and has to stay refined throughout anything. She is spiteful and petty as a child, but grows up to be remarkable and experienced in the ways of life. Florence may have made me love the manuscript burning scene even more (although Nicole told me not to get any ideas). I am only sixteen years old, but I find myself agreeing with Amy's views on love especially. I have never been a romantic like my sister; I just want to have some sort of say in the matter.

It is Amy March who justifies that life will continue when passion ends, that impulses can be good, and that sisters are forever. Luckily, Nicole is the Jo to my Amy which I think shows that we're closer than we can even imagine. 

By Hannah Ackman
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