The Sunday after Thanksgiving – Nov. 26 – marks one year since the passing of Stephen Sondheim. While that may not seem an occasion to celebrate, the great master of American musical theater is being celebrated in triplicate on stages across the island of Manhattan, where his gifts to the world will live on for as long as the arts and civilization survive.
Except for the pandemic years of the recent past, the holiday season has been a time when out-of-towners from all over the nation flock to New York City for the Thanksgiving Day parade, to see the lighting of the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree or to watch the Times Square ball drop to end the old year and ring in the new. But it’s also an occasion to take in a Broadway show, many of which are featured with musical numbers performed live in front of Macy’s at Herald Square. This year, three Sondheim musicals are playing at the same time – one of which is a posthumous world premiere of the last notes and lyrics ever created by the beloved genius of his craft.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” just one of many masterpieces in the Sondheim canon, stars Josh Groban in the title role and Annaleigh Ashford as his lover/co-conspirator in meat-pie cannibalism. While you can still “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” through Jan. 14, 2024, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after that date, it will be with two new leads, yet to be announced.
Also playing on Broadway is the critically acclaimed revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” surprisingly so because it has long been regarded as Sondheim’s most notable flop. Starring Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton,” “Spring Awakening”), Daniel Radcliffe (still best known as Harry Potter, who he first played at age 12), and Lindsay Mendez (Tony-winner for her role in the 2018 revival of “Carousel”), “Merrily” rolls along at the historic and intimate Hudson Theatre.
Finally, and most precious as these tickets will not come easily, is “Here We Are,” the musical Sondheim had been working to complete before he died at 91 last November. David Ives wrote the book for the musical, with lyrics and score by the Great One, inspired by two films by Luis Bunuel of Spain, the 1972 Oscar-winning “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and the lesser known movie of a decade earlier, “The Exterminating Angel.” “Here We Are” is making its premiere Off-Broadway at The Shed through Jan. 21, 2024. The all-star cast, directed by Tony winner Joe Mantello, includes David Hyde Pierce, Denis O’Hare, Rachel Bay Jones and Bobby Cannavale. The Shed is a new and innovative performing arts center located at the spot where the High Line meets Hudson Yards along Manhattan’s West End riverfront.
sweeneytoddbroadway.com; merrilyonbroadway.com; theshed.org
Fifty-two years ago, a year after I graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park, I returned for a weekend visit with my parents at their new Arcadia Shores home on the Miles River. Something new was happening in Easton. It was timed for the opening of goose-hunting season, which my father, newly retired, took up with a duck blind just off the beach of the two-acre lot purchased after selling our Dutchman’s Lane farm.
The art part of the festival was largely in the form of actual duck or goose decoys colorfully painted, plus watercolors of scenes a hunter might see as he trained his eyes on feathered game that his water dog would retrieve. My favorite part of this first-time festival was the abundance of raw oysters chased with Natty Boh beer.
Since those days, the Waterfowl Festival has turned into a tourist industry that put Easton on the national – even international – map for other annual cultural attractions, notably the summertime Plein Air Festival.
Waterfowl 2023, weather cooperating, promises to be bigger and broader than ever. Favorite additions to the festival since I retired and moved back to Easton in 2017 are the raptor demos – birds ranging from owls to falcons – are released and trained to fly back to their handler, almost but not always on command, and the Dock Dogs competition, judged on the length of their dives, are emblematic of the festival’s roots. What good is shooting a bird out of the sky if you don’t have a good swimmer to retrieve it? Otherwise, you’re just shooting birds for sport. No, the sport for that sort of shooting is clay pigeons.
Not all events at this year’s festival are water-related. As a native farmboy of Easton, I can say that cornhole is a landlubber sport. I never imagined it would become a televised competition on ESPN. It’s not too late to sign up for the 2023 Waterfowl Festival Cornhole Tournament.
The festival runs from Thursday, Nov. 9, through Sunday, Nov. 12. Unless you’re planning to enjoy the Waterfowl happenings that weekend, you may want to steer clear of downtown Easton for a few days – other than the Saturday morning farmer’s market between Harrison and Washington streets. But if you’ve never experienced Waterfowl, hey, the birds and dogs are live and up close, the art is pleasing and environmentally affirming. And the oysters – remember November has an R in it – are sublime. Bring your own horseradish in case your vendor runs out of it.
The Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra compete for your attention on the same couple of days in early November. The MSO opens its second series of concerts out of town, as it were, away from its Easton-area home base. The opening concert is Friday night, Nov. 3, at Rehoboth Beach’s Epworth United Methodist Church, followed by a matinee at the Ocean City Performing Arts Center on Saturday, before concluding with a Sunday matinee at Chesapeake College’s Todd Performing Arts Center in Wye Mills. The program centers on African-American themes with an overture by Elfrida Andree and symphonic variations by Samuel Coleridge Taylor before a change of pace after intermission with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” (Symphony No. 5.) That means my review of the concerts will appear on Spy websites in advance of the Sunday concert at Chesapeake College.
Meanwhile, at Maryland Hall, the Annapolis Symphony performs a program titled “A Taste of Spain: Ravel, Ravueltas & Rodrigo” opening with a Rossini overture and featuring a solo by guitarist Pepe Romero on Rodrigo’s signature piece, “Fantasia for a Gentleman.” The concerts are Nov. 3 and 4.
Plein air is proliferating on the Shore. Everyone in the universe of plein air artistry knows about Plein Air Easton. Now we have season 2 of Plein Air Adkins in the sylvan environs of Adkins Arboretum, a short ride from Ridgely in Caroline County. The one-day paint-out will be held Saturday morning, Nov. 4 as participating artists gather to paint the forested and stream-streaked landscapes. Live music will accompany the artists’ painting in real time and those who peruse the artworks and make an offer to take a painting home. Refreshments and light fare will be available as well for the day-long event beginning at 11 a.m..
“God of Carnage,” a four-hand play by Yasmina Reza, won the Tony for best play in 2009 and the Laurence Olivier prize in Britain for the same honor. Church Hill Theatre opens its production of the drama with farcical, booze-fueled outbursts by two sets of parents at war with their opposite pair and spouses turning against each other over a physical assault by one child on the other couple’s boy. The play runs Nov. 3-19 at 103 Walnut St., in downtown Church Hill.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.