On Stage: Hamilton storms into Philadelphia

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Hamilton

This is the week for big stage productions to arrive in the area in a variety of genres – musical theater, international ballet and modern circus.

First and foremost is the eagerly awaited arrival of the mega-hit musical “Hamilton,” the show that took Broadway by storm a few years ago and never let up.

“Hamilton: An American Musical” is a sung-and-rapped through musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. It features music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda and was inspired by the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ron Chernow.

The National Tour of “Hamilton” opens this week at the Forrest Theatre (1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org) as part of the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia series. The hit musical will run through November 17.

Blending hip hop, R&B, pop, soul, traditional-style show tunes, and color-conscious casting of non-white actors as the founding fathers and other historical figures, the musical achieved both critical acclaim and box office success.

“Hamilton” made its Off-Broadway debut at The Public Theater in February 2015, where its engagement was sold out.  Nominated for 14 Drama Desk Awards in 2015, the production won Outstanding Musical and seven others.

In August 2015, the show transferred to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it received enthusiastic critical reception and unprecedented advance box office sales. In 2016, Hamilton received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations and won 11 including Best Musical. It received the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The show fared equally well in London, England.

The West End production of “Hamilton” opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London in December 2017 and won seven Olivier Awards in 2018, including Best New Musical.

The first U.S. national tour of the show began performances in March 2017 and a second U.S. tour opened in February 2018. The third U.S. tour of “Hamilton” began January 11, 2019 with a three-week engagement in Puerto Rico featuring Miranda in the lead role.

“Hamilton” is the story of the unlikely founding father determined to make his mark on the new nation as hungry and ambitious as he is. It tells the tale of his life — from bastard orphan to Washington’s right-hand man — from rebel to war hero He was a loving husband caught in the country’s first sex scandal and the Treasury head who made an untrusting world believe in the American economy.

George Washington, Eliza Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton’s lifelong friend/foil Aaron Burr all make their mark in this astonishing new musical exploration of a political mastermind.

The play has two acts, telling Hamilton’s story through major events in his life and American history. It tells Hamilton’s life from beginning to end along with various other characters such as Marquis De Lafayette, Aaron Burr, John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, Peggy Schuyler, Phillip Hamilton, and former presidents George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.

The evolution of this show started with a book.

While on vacation from performing in his hit Broadway show “In the Heights,” Miranda read a copy of “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, a biography of Alexander Hamilton. After finishing the first few chapters, Miranda began to envision the life of Hamilton as a musical, and researched whether a stage musical of Hamilton’s life had been created. All he found was that a play of Hamilton’s story had been done on Broadway in 1917.

Miranda therefore began a project titled “The Hamilton Mixtape.” On May 12, 2009, Miranda was invited to perform music from “In the Heights” at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word. Instead, he performed the first song from “The Hamilton Mixtape,” an early version of what would later become “Alexander Hamilton”,  the opening number of “Hamilton.”

Eventually, “Hamilton” found its way to Broadway and the rest is history – history still in the making. “Hamilton” is eighth on the list of top grossing shows on Broadway with a gross to date of $529.3 million.

The show also has influenced the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

he United States ten-dollar bill ($10) features the portrait of Hamilton, who served as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The source of the portrait on the $10 bill is John Trumbull’s 1805 painting of Hamilton that belongs to the portrait collection of New York City Hall.

The $10 bill is unique in that it is the only denomination in circulation in which the portrait faces to the left. It also features one of two non-presidents on currently issued U.S. bills, the other being Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill. Hamilton is also the only person not born in the continental United States or British America (he was from the West Indies) currently depicted on U.S. paper currency.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a redesign to the $10 bill, with plans to replace Hamilton with a then-undecided woman from American history. Because of the surging popularity of the musical “Hamilton,”, United States Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reversed the plans to replace Hamilton’s portrait, instead deciding to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

Video link for “Hamilton” — https://youtu.be/b5VqyCQV1Tg.

The show at the Forrest Theatre is running now through November 17. Ticket prices range from $129-$199 via www.telecharge.com. Additional tickets are available through a daily lottery. For more information, visit https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery.

Ballet fans and arts enthusiasts interested in international culture are in for a real treat this week.

On August 28, the Merriam Theater (250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org) will present Liaoning Ballet of China (Hua Ballet) production of “Mulan” — 演出剧场:歌剧院.

Mulan

Mulan is a legendary Chinese heroine. Her name originally appeared in the “The Ballad of Mulan,” a folk song of the Northern Dynasties composed over 1000 years ago.

Mulan joined the army in her father’s stead and killed enemies to defend her country. She performed famed military exploits and, after 10 years, rise to the rank of General.

Instead of continuing with a life in the military, Mulan excused herself from an official title and returned to her hometown, where she relived the pastoral life yearned by many common Chinese people.

Mulan serves as a model for “filial piety and loyalty” in traditional Chinese ethics and has an aesthetic image as a valiant but gentle female warrior. In this all-star ballet by Liaoning Ballet of China, Mulan’s filial piety and loyalty, as well as feelings for the home and country, is interpreted from a contemporary perspective.

The ballet drama is created based literally on Song of Mulan, an ancient writing, but Mulan is portrayed vividly as an affectionate heroine of flesh and blood, an image that does not exist in the original work, especially when Mulan lives on the battlefield for over 10 years.

According to Qu Zijiao, art director and head of Liaoning Ballet of China, “I want to introduce Chinese stories and culture to the world through ballet. I believe ‘Mulan’ can take this role.”

Hua Ballet’s production of “Mulan” toured throughout China last year and then had its global debut recently at Lincoln Center in New York. Now, it is coming to Philadelphia for one night only.

According to Hua Mulan Ballet Representative Wai Man, “We are honored to bring Liaoning Ballet of China to Philadelphia to the Merriam Theater located on the prestigious Avenue of the Arts. Seeing this ancient Chinese fable of Mulan come to life by this distinguished dance ensemble should be a phenomenal experience for our Philadelphia audience.

The program is performed by star performers who have won awards in international competitions in recent years. The program includes elegant classical ballet and fashionable modern ballet — all with dramatic and exciting stories. Through ballet, the dancers express the pursuit of ideals and the expression of love, so that the audience can capture the many faces of ballet.

Liaoning Ballet of China was founded in 1980 and is one of the leading ballet companies in China. It is dedicated to producing new Chinese cultural works and performing beloved ballet classics.

The company’s repertoire includes world-famous classical productions, such as “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker,” “La Sylphide,” “Le Corsaire,” and “Don Quixote.”

Liaoning Ballet has also produced works inspired by Chinese culture such as “Gada Meiren,” “The Peacock’s Gallbladder,” “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai,” “Reflection Of The Moon In A Double Fountain” and “The Last Emperor.” The company has made great contributions to the development of Chinese ballet by bringing more and more original productions that reflect both historical events and artistry on stage.

Video link for Hua Ballet “Mulan” — https://youtu.be/abI96A25LDM.

Liaoning Ballet of China (Hua Ballet) production of “Mulan” will be performed at the Merriam Theater on August 28 at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $58-$148.

Cirque du Soleil has a variety of types of shows – shows under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), arena shows, permanent shows in Las Vegas and even an ice show.

Cirque du Soleil

Area fans have been in luck this year because all three types of non-permanent shows have visited our region this year. The inaugural Cirque du Soleil ice show “Crystal” played the Wells Fargo Center in April. “Amaluna,” the extravagant production under the Grand Chapiteau just concluded its run in Oaks.

Now, an arena show called “Corteo” will have a short run at the Giant Arena (550 Hersheypark Drive, Hershey, https://www.hersheyentertainment.com/giant-center/events/cirque-du-soleil-corteo) now through September 1.

After its local run, the production will open an exhaustive European tour on September 26 with four stops in Italy – Torino, Milano, Bologna, Pescaro – followed by visits to cities around the rest of western Europe.

“Corteo,” which means “cortege” in Italian, is a joyous procession, a festive parade imagined by a clown. The show brings together the passion of the actor with the grace and power of the acrobat to plunge the audience into a theatrical world of fun, comedy and spontaneity situated in a mysterious space between heaven and earth.

The producers of Cirque du Solei’s new extravaganza “Corteo” are asking the show’s audiences to “Get carried away with life.”

Cirque du Soleil offers this explanation of what ‘Corteo” is all about – “The clown Mauro has passed, but his spirit is still with us. Instead of mourning, the funeral cortege celebrates the here and hereafter with laughter and exuberance. Rich, extravagant memories frolic with the senses.

“The sound of laughter peals around the stage, visions of joyous tumblers and players fascinate the eyes. Regret and melancholy retreat in the face of a cavalcade of lively recollections of a life gloriously lived. A festive parade that entertains; the perfect accolade for an artist whose life was dedicated to revelry and making merry.”

This is a funeral without sadness.

The clown pictures his own funeral taking place in a carnival atmosphere, watched over by quietly caring angels. Juxtaposing the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection, the show highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us. The music turns lyrical and playful carrying Corteo through a timeless celebration in which illusion teases reality.

The concept and disposition of the stage bring the audience in a theatrical atmosphere like never seen before in Cirque du Soleil arena shows. The set curtains, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and the central curtains, which were hand painted, give a grandiose feel to the stage. This sets the tone for the poetry of Corteo.

Actually, the show “Corteo” itself has come back from the dead.

This unique production, directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, first premiered in Montreal under the Big Top in April 2005. Since then, the show has been a great success and has amazed nine million people in 19 countries on four continents. The cast of Corteo includes 51 acrobats, clowns, musicians, singers and actors from all around the world.

“This show toured under the Big Top for 10 years,” said “Corteo” performer Santé D’Amours Fortunato, during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Denver, Colorado.

“I saw ‘Corteo’ three times when it was a Big Top show – 2008 in Ottawa, 2012 in Dusseldorf, Germany and then a little while later in Vancouver.

“It closed two years ago and then re-opened in arena format in March 2018. The arena show is pretty much the same as the Big Top show but with two new acts – suspended poles and hula hoops.”

The hula hoops number is an act which features Fortunato.

“One act I’m in is aerial chandelier,” said Fortunato. “There are three chandeliers that look like normal chandeliers, but people can hang from them. There are four of us on the chandeliers.

“With the hula hoop number, I’m on a platform that is supposed to look like a bed, I’m supposed to be practicing a performance with my own circus.”

Fortunato has been involved with circus life for most of her life.

“I did dance competitions for 10 years and competed in rhythmic gymnastics for five years,” said Fortunato. “Then, I auditioned for the National Circus School of Montreal. It’s a circus school where they teach you contortion, trapeze, clowning, juggling, acting and dance. I spent four years there and graduated in 2011. I learned hula hoops there.

“After I graduated, I started working on cruise ships. Then, I did circus festivals. I spent about five years doing shows around the world.

“I’ve been with Cirque du Soleil for two years. I auditioned and they gave me an offer for ‘Corteo’ – to do two acts along with ensemble work in the show.”

Video link for “Corteo” — https://youtu.be/0G5qYu_Jllo.

The show at Giant Arena will run through September 1. Ticket prices start at $51.85.

Danielle Nicole

Danielle Nicole is coming back to the area with a new band and a relatively new album – an album that garnered her a lot of recognition from the Blues Music Awards and the Grammy Awards.

Nicole , who now lives in Kansas City (Missouri), will play a show on August 28 at the Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com).

In February 2018, Nicole came to the World Café Live to play a record release show for her second solo album “Cry No More.” The album dropped on March 10, 2018 via Concord Records and peaked at Number 1 in the Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart. Additionally, the television series, S.W.A.T., used one of the album’s tracks — “Save Me” — on the February 21, 2019 episode of the show.

Also, “Cry No More” was nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award in Contemporary Blues. In May 2019, Nicole received Blues Music Awards for both Contemporary Blues Female Artist and Bass Instrumentalist.

“Winning awards is always nice,” said Nicole, during a phone interview Tuesday evening as she was getting ready to ride SEPTA from Center City to Citizens Bank Park to watch the game between the Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It’s extra nice for blues artists because it helps get people to know who you are. When the album was nominated for a Grammy, we exploded on the jam scene.”

Nicole’s new album features 14 powerful, blues-influenced songs, including the Bill Withers-penned “Hot Spell,” and appearances by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Luther Dickinson, Walter Trout and Sonny Landreth.

“I recorded the album in September 2017 at Ultratone Studio in Studio City, California,” said Nicole. “I went there to work with

producer Tony Braunagel, who also played drums on the record. We did two sessions.

“I didn’t have my own band, so we used a lot of guest artists. Tony is an amazing drummer. Our engineer Johnny Lee Schell played a lot of the guitar parts. I always loved the idea of playing with guest musicians. Mike Finnigan and his son Kelly both played organ. I played bass and there were a lot of different guitarists.”

The list of impressive musicians who worked with Nicole on “Cry No More” also included Nick Schnebelen, Brandon Miller, Monster Mike Welch with Maxanne Lewis and Kudisan Kai as background vocalists.

Nicole wrote or co-wrote nine of the 14 songs on “Cry No More” but the seductive “Hot Spell” was given to her by its author — long-retired R&B legend Bill Withers.

Withers was a surprise visitor to the album’s recording sessions at L.A.’s Ultratone Studios and was so impressed with Nicole’s singing that he dug into his archives and offered her the song – an unrecorded song that he wrote more than 40 years ago.

“Tony and Johnny have a lot of friends in L.A.,” said Nicole. “One is a doctor who likes to drop in on sessions. He wanted to come by with Bill Withers and I was thrilled. Bill Withers is the essence of cool – and one of my all-time musical heroes. We played him a track and then the doctor said – do we have any songs for Danielle?

“Bill invited me to come out to his car. We were hanging out in his SUV and he’s shuffling through his glovebox. Then, he pulls out this disc and says – I’ve got this song. It’s a bit risqué, but if you don’t mind, I’ll play it for you. It was this demo that he’d done with his daughter doing the vocals.  It was really moody – and it had a really cool groove. He said — you can record this one if you want. It’s a great track that was written in the 70s and never released.”

Now, the classic Withers tune has seen the light of day. The tune, along with many more from “Cry No More,” will be presented live when Nicole and her band rock the house at the Ardmore Music Hall tonight

“Coming back to Philly is always special for me,” said Nicole. “I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia when I was a young musician.”

Born Danielle Nicole Schnebelen, Nicole comes from a long line of singers and musicians and showed an affinity for singing almost from birth.

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, she performed in public for the first time at the age of 12, singing Koko Taylor’s “Never Trust a Man” as part of a Blues for Schools program at her elementary school.

In her early teens, she began singing in local coffeehouses and at open mic events, often jamming with her parents at clubs that would allow minors.

At 16, she became lead singer in her father’s band, Little Eva and the Works.  In 1999, she started her own band, Fresh Brew, with some older local musicians. Fresh Brew performed for four years and represented Kansas City in the prestigious International Blues Challenge.

It was during this time that Nicole and her brothers formed a family band — Trampled Under Foot — and relocated to Philadelphia in the process.

To maintain the family concept, Nicole learned to play bass. Trampled Under Foot traveled the world, recorded several self-released albums, and built a sizable national fan base through years of nonstop roadwork.

The band, which specialized in a blend of blues, soul and rock, started as a trio featuring three siblings — Danielle Nicole Schnebelen (lead vocals and bass), Nick Schnebelen (guitars and vocals) and Kris Schnebelen (drums and vocals). The current line-up of the Danielle Nicole Band features Brandon Miller on guitar and vocals, Cameron Tyler on drums and Nicole on bass and vocals.

“Trampled Under Foot was my brothers and I,” said Nicole. “We had been touring for 12 years and it was time to move on.

“Kris left in 2014. Then, we added musicians, so we could go out on a high note. We’re all still playing music. Nick has a power trio and Kris is playing with Albert Castilla, who is a really good blues guitarist.

“When my brothers and I were in Philadelphia, we wanted to pursue the blues. But there isn’t a thriving blues scene in Philly. Everyone in Philly was really supportive of us but moving back to Kansas City was a smart move – especially because it’s so centrally located.

For its 2013 album “Badlands,” which was also produced by Braunagel, Trampled Under Foot moved to the Telarc label, a division of Concord Music Group.  “Badlands” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart.

As Trampled Under Foot wound down after an eventful 13-year run, Nicole formed her own band and signed with Concord Records, released a self-titled EP and then followed with the Anders Osborne-produced album “Wolf Den” in 2015.  Those releases established Nicole as a formidable solo artist and bandleader.

Video link for Danielle Nicole – https://youtu.be/fk1oUaNKyfk.

The show at the Ardmore Music Hall, which has Dave Patten & The First Cut as the opening act, will start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.

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