Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy will conclude its critically acclaimed summer 2010 season with zesty presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s one-act 1979 song cycle, TELL ME ON A SUNDAY, starring Lauren Kennedy and staged by New York actor, director, and choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis, who directed and choreographed the HSN production of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, which was named one of the TRIANGLE THEATRE REVIEW’S Top Ten Shows of 2008.
Hot Summer Nights’ artistic director, producer, director, and actress Lauren Kennedy will perform TELL ME ON A SUNDAY on Aug. 18-22 and 25-29 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater — named after her parents — in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC, and on Sept. 1-5 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre — named for the Raleigh native and her husband and fellow Broadway star — at Barton College in Wilson.
According to preshow publicity, Lauren Kennedy says, “I jumped at the chance [to perform TELL ME ON A SUNDAY] when director Matthew-Jason Willis and I discussed [this one-woman show], because it is a score I’ve been desperate to tackle, and I adore working with him! He had some fascinating and fresh ideas on the show that really excite me”
Originally conceived by Lloyd Webber’s long-time collaborator, lyricist and librettist Tim Rice, TELL ME ON A SUNDAY features a scintillating score by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Don Black, including the hit single “Take That Look Off Your Face,” which soared to number three on the British pop charts. The show, which debuted in September 1979 at the Sydmonton Festival, held on Lloyd Webber’s Hampshire estate, chronicles the romantic misadventures of an ordinary girl from the north London suburb of Muswell Hill who travels to New York City, Hollywood, and eventually back to Manhattan, looking for love in all the wrong places.
In 1980, TELL ME ON A SUNDAY became Act I of SONG AND DANCE, after it was paired with the ballet VARIATIONS, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his cello-soloist brother, Julian Lloyd Webber. That musical, with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., opened in London’s West End in 1982 and made its Broadway debut in 1985.
“My first real recollection of TELL ME ON A SUNDAY was when I was in middle school,” recalls Hot Summer Nights guest director Matthew-Jason Willis. “I remember hearing Marti Webb sing ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’ on an Andrew Lloyd Webber special on PBS; and, of course, I knew a couple of girls that would always sing ‘Tell Me on a Sunday’ or ‘Unexpected Song’ at auditions.
“Hearing those few songs prompted me to buy the original Broadway cast album (on cassette, of course) of SONG AND DANCE, starring Bernadette Peters,” says Willis. “I thought that it was interesting that the entire first act (TELL ME ON A SUNDAY) was just songs from her point of view and the second act was all dancing told from one of the guys’ point of view.”
Willis adds, “No matter what people’s opinions are of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, his score for TELL ME ON A SUNDAY is arguably one of his best, if not his very best. It’s a very personal story to me, and I think it really resonates with most everyone as well.
“I actually really love how the story is told,” Willis declares. “It really forces you to explore the grey areas, since it is all told from her point of view, that it isn’t all just black and white and I think the exploration and depicting of those areas are exciting.
“Last summer,” says Willis, “I was sitting with my friend and extremely talented actress Jordan Kai Burnett (whom I think could be the next/new Bette Midler); and we were talking about different shows we wanted to do and she brought up TELL ME ON A SUNDAY. The more we discussed the show, the more intrigued I became with it, and I sat down with it one day listening to it over and over and became really curious about the possibility of telling the story in a new and (hopefully) fresh way that had never been done before.
“After sitting with the material in my head for a while,” Willis explains, “I was at the ROCKERS ON BROADWAY concert benefit with Lauren [Kennedy], and somewhere in between Leslie Gore and Mickey Dolenz, I said, ‘Hey, I have this idea of doing TELL ME ON A SUNDAY this certain way, what do ya think?’ And we discussed it a bit and then went back to watching the concert and hanging out with our friends in it. A week or so went by, and Lauren says to me, ‘So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you were saying with TELL ME ON A SUNDAY and I love the idea, wanna do it at Hot Summer Nights starring me?’ and so, here we are today.”
When the curtain rises on TELL ME ON A SUNDAY, says director Matthew-Jason Willis, an English girl named “Emma (Lauren Kennedy) arrives in New York City to live with her drummer boyfriend Chuck and pursue her [own] artistic career. She meets her best friend Viv, who has been living in the city for a year already and makes fun of Emma’s endearing naïveté (‘Take That Look Off Your Face’).
“Emma moves into Chuck’s apartment in Queens; and when on her first night in the city, he arrives home drunk and very late, she decides to move out (‘Let Me Finish’). Emma quickly learns that surviving the city is a task in and of itself, and realizes that she is better [off] focusing on her career and not her love life and decides to stay with Viv for a while (‘So Much to Do in New York’).
WARNING — SPOILERS
“A couple weeks go by,” says Willis, “and Emma has contact with her mother and fills her in on what New York has been like thus far and [tells her] that she has met a handsome film producer who is whisking her away to Los Angeles (‘First Letter Home’). After spending time in L.A. as a kept woman, Emma learns how superficial the Hollywood scene is; and after copious amounts of shopping, wining and dining, and lounging by the pool seeing and being seen, she still has no solidified relationship with the man who made empty promises and brought her to L.A. (‘Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad’). She realizes that he doesn’t have any serious intentions and decides to leave him and go back to New York (‘You Made Me Think You Were in Love’).”
Willis adds, “Emotionally and physically drained, Emma relishes her decision to go to LA in the first place (‘Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad — Reprise’). Back in Manhattan and living in her own apartment now, Emma feels finally at home and has met Joe, an open and optimistic boy from Nebraska (‘So Much to Do in New York — Part 2’). Emma writes her mother to tell her all about Joe and how wonderful he is and how he has rekindled a long dying fire inside of her (‘Second Letter Home’).
“A few months pass,” Willis notes, “and Emma confesses that she has never felt about anyone the way she feels for Joe and how she never thought she would find someone as special as he is (‘Unexpected Song’). It’s a new year and new beginnings, Joe must leave the city for work in Baltimore, and Emma begs him to remember how much she loves him (‘Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes’).
“Shortly after Joe’s departure, Viv meets Emma at a coffee shop and has the unfortunate news that Joe has not gone to Baltimore but has been in the city all along, avoiding her and seeing someone else (‘Take That Look Off Your Face — Reprise’). Heartbroken and fragile, Emma describes her ideal way of learning a relationship is over (‘Tell Me on a Sunday’),” says Willis.
He adds, “Even in the excitement and hustle and bustle of the city, Emma feels extremely lonely and depressed until she meets Paul, an exec who lives in West Port with his wife and four children. He is a distraction while she starts to get her life and career in order (‘I Love New York/So Much to Do in New York – Part 3’). Now she cannot resist how sexual, dangerous, and alive her affair makes her feel; but most importantly, she doesn’t feel alone (‘Married Man’). She contacts her mother again to fill her in on all the new and exciting things in her life, including her affair with Paul (‘Third Letter Home’).
“Emma comes to terms with the situation of her affair,” says Willis, “and how she enjoys the fact that she is learning to balance career and love life, even though for her it is a physical and not emotional relationship (‘Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known’). That evening, Paul, who has left his wife and kids to be with her and start a new life, shows up unexpectedly at her apartment. She tells him that her career has had a major breakthrough, and that he should return back home and forget about her all together.”
Willis adds, “She sends him off, faces the fact that she has ruined someone else’s life, and reflects on how she has at times been her own worst enemy. She realizes that she has indeed become a ‘New Yorker,’ but wonders if she were better off being that girl who first came to the city bright eyed and full of wonder, and decides that she will take all that she has learned and change for the better this time (‘Finale — Let Me Finish/What Have I Done?/Take That Look Off Your Face’).”
END — SPOILERS
Director Matthew-Jason Willis adds, “I think the major challenge in telling this story is in what isn’t said. There are chunks of time that go by, and [there is] not a lot of information textually to fill in those gaps. I decided that the show would take place in the timeline of a year so, [and] I have added the elements of the seasons and holidays to help distinguish when we are.
“Also, the fact that we are hearing a one-sided conversation could be considered problematic by some, but I find it rather exhilarating,” Willis admits. “Most people don’t find Emma to be very likeable, but I just don’t see her that way. I think she is actually really rather likeable and very relatable.”
He adds, “I think commonly people have two ways of playing her in that she can either be a sugary sweet, innocent, and naive girl who falls under unfortunate circumstances, or she can be just a self-centered bitch who is aware of all that she is doing but could care less about it.
“I think the real Emma has to be a concoction of both. She is optimistic, not naïve; [and] she is not-self centered, just confident. There [have] to be all of those different layers of both characters to make a whole one and not just a stereotype of one or the other. I always prefer to not go for the obvious choices,” says Willis. “I really want the audience to decide for themselves the ‘real’ story of it all, but then again what really is truth. We all have our own truth, and I hope that it will strike up conversations amongst people as they leave the theater.”
In addition to guest director Matthew-Jason Willis and producer and star Lauren Kennedy, the Hot Summer Nights creative team for this production of TELL ME ON A SUNDAY includes producers Alan Campbell, Hilary Russo, Adam Twiss, and Andrea Schulz Twiss; musical director Julie Florin; technical director and set and lighting designer Chris Bernier; costume designers Matthew-Jason Willis and Lauren Kennedy; projection designer Lauren Kennedy; projection coordinator Will Mikes; properties manager Leanne Norton Heintz; sound designer Brian L. Hunt; and stage manager Christine Rapp. The TELL ME ON A SUNDAY band includes musical director Julie Florin (piano), Drew Lile (guitar), John Simonetti (bass), Les Webster (percussion), and Joan Beck (violin)
Matthew-Jason Willis reveals, “I wanted to keep the set very simple since I knew that I would be using projections to help define time and location. So, it’s a simple brick wall with a large gilded picture frame that will showcase the projections. Also, [there is] a shabby chic love seat and side table along with a table and chairs help to define the space as well.
“I really wanted to play with this idea of voyeurism and how as audience members we observe and participate in theater and how often times in this production we are addressing and including the audience as if the audience were part of the conversation,” Willis explains. “So, I’ve added a doorframe that the audience will enter through as if entering [Emma’s] world — think a little BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. And just to mix things up a bit and to create a more intimate feel, we have reconfigured the seating, so that the set and playing space is a bit more in the corner, instead of a thrust or proscenium configuration.’
Willis adds, “The costumes start off a bit earthy and work their way into a more fashion forward sense as Emma changes and becomes a New York girl.”
Moreover, says Matthew-Jason Willis, “I really wanted the lighting to have a very contemporary musical theater/rock feel to it. I love the use of colored lighting, so expect to see some nice washes and pinpoints of color in the lighting scheme. [There will be] Lots of specials and gobos and a spot light as well.”
Director Matthew-Jason Willis says, “Ya know, when people think of Lauren Kennedy, they know that she has an ah-mazing voice, but unfortunately they often overlook the fact that she is truly an exceptional actress! She is really smart in her choices, and often picks the not-so-obvious ones — and that really gets my motor running. She is so smart and so creative and brings so much to the plate.
“I’ve had the extreme pleasure of working with her several times before,” notes Willis, “but this is the first opportunity I have had to direct her, which is something I have wanted to do for a long time. We are very fortunate in that we have a friendship, and we can work together professionally. It’s always such a joy to work with her, because we oftentimes share the same brain; and we can bounce ideas back and forth with one another, and there is never any fear of creating something new and different.”
He adds, “She is my muse! She just astounds me; she is Wonder Woman! I swear I don’t think there is anything that woman cannot do, nor can I sing her praises enough.”
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents TELL ME ON A SUNDAY, starring Lauren Kennedy, at 8 p.m. Aug. 18-20, 7 p.m. Aug. 21, 3 p.m. Aug. 22, 8 p.m. Aug. 25-28, and 3 p.m. Aug. 29 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601; and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1, 8 p.m. Sept. 2-4, and 3 p.m. Sept. 5 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College, 700 Vance St. NE, Wilson, North Carolina 27893.
TICKETS: $22 ($18 students and seniors).
BOX OFFICE: 866/811-4111 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655 (Raleigh) or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/30005 (Wilson).
VENUES: Raleigh: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/. Wilson: http://www.barton.edu/theatre/.
PARKING/DIRECTIONS: Raleigh: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/. Wilson: http://www.barton.edu/theatre/.
The Musical: http://www.reallyuseful.com/shows/tell-me-on-a-sunday (official website), http://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/shows/tell-me-on-a-sunday (Andrew Lloyd Webber), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=12073 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0434388/ (Internet Movie Database).
Andrew Lloyd Webber: http://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/ (official website), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0515908/ (Internet Movie Database).
Lauren Kennedy: http://www.laurenkennedy.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=70340 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0448171/ (Internet Movie Database).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.