On Stage: James plays it ‘big’ in Love For Three Oranges

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Zachary James

Zachary James is a Broadway and screen actor and an international opera singer who has performed in venues all around the world.

Now, James call Philadelphia home and is performing with Opera Philadelphia.

For the next two weekends, James will play a major role in Opera Philadelphia’s company premiere of “The Love for Three Oranges.”

“The Love for Three Oranges” features music by Sergei Prokofiev and a libretto by Prokofiev and Vera Janacopoulos. It is based on Vsevolod Meyerhold’s adaptation of the play by Carlo Gozzi and is performed in English with English supertitles.

The opera is part of Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19, which is running now through September 29 at the Academy of Music (240 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, www.operaphila.org

“The Love for Three Oranges,” which is billed as a “zesty love story,” is a pithy fairytale about a sweet young prince, cursed by a sour witch and forced to voyage into distant lands in search of three oranges, each of which contains a princess.

100 years after composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote this endlessly inventive opera, best known for its famous “March,” the time is ripe for “The Love for Three Oranges” to finally make its Opera Philadelphia debut.

“In 2016, I performed in ‘Breaking The Waves’ for Opera Philadelphia,” said James, during a recent phone interview from his home in Philadelphia. “It was a world premiere – and my first time with Opera Philadelphia. It was a great experience. I did two years of workshops to get ready.

“With ‘The Love for Three Oranges,’ I was approached by Opera Philadelphia. I told them I was living in Philly now – that I was a local artist. We started rehearsals not long after that.”

“The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33,” a satirical opera by Prokofiev, is also known by its French language title “L’amour des trois oranges” and its Russian title “Любовь к трём апельсинам.” Its French libretto was based on the Italian play “L’amore delle tre melarance” by Gozzi. The opera premiered at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, Illinois in December 1921.

“It’s not an opera that is done too often,” said James, who is making his Metropolitan Opera debut in “Ahknaten,” which plays at the Met from November 8-December 7 and will be broadcast live around the world in November 2019.

“I’m not that familiar with it and have never seen it performed live. It is most known for its famous overture. It’s kind of a fantastical story. It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It’s kind of a strange story in a way.”

James, who grew up in New Port Richey, Florida, is no stranger to strange stories having played Lurch in the original Broadway company of “The Addams Family.”

“This is a family-friendly show of standard length – a little over two hours,” said James.

“I play The Cook. He’s both a giant (6 foot, 6 inches) and also a female. It’s my first drag role. It’s especially strange because of my bass voice, It adds to the comic element.

“My role is like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ The Cook wants to eat them. It’s a bit of a twist.”

The opera is appealing to audiences for many ways other than just the comedic element.

“Another special thing is that we’re performing in English,” said James. “It’s usually performed in Russian or French.”

Other Festival O19 productions during the upcoming week will be “Semele” at the Perelman Theater, “Denis & Katya” at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, “Let Me Die” World Premiere at Fringe Arts, “Curtis in Concert” at Field Concert Hall, and the “Festival O19 Celebration” on September 21 at the Academy of Music.

Video link for Opera Philadelphia — https://youtu.be/Vej4khmFzZ0?list=PLpbhbGwbWvNLBtVrdKVXJv1RT1ECo439D.

The production at the Academy of Music will be performed at 8 p.m. on Fridays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.

Ticket prices range from $29-$229.

On September 21, the Annenberg Center (3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, https://annenbergcenter.org/events) will present a special concert featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Sweet Honey in The Rock

Sweet Honey in The Rock is a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture. It is a Grammy Award-winning female a cappella group – an African-American ensemble with a musical range that includes spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, reggae, rap, ancient lullabies, calypso, hip-hop, African chants and freestyle improvisation.

The ensemble educates, entertains and empowers its audience and community through the dynamic vehicles of a cappella singing and American Sign Language interpretation for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

Sweet Honey’s audience and community comes from diverse backgrounds and cultures throughout the United States and around the world, and includes people of all ages, economic/education/social backgrounds, political persuasions, religious affiliations, sexual preferences and differing abilities. 

Sweet Honey in the Rock hasn’t been around forever – it just seems that way. The vocal ensemble was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon and has continued to flourish ever since. The most recent Sweet Honey in the Rock release “#LoveInEvolution” is the group’s 27th album.

Sweet Honey in the Rock was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was teaching a vocal workshop with the Washington, D.C. Black Repertory Company. Reagon retired from the group in 2004. The name of the group was derived from a song, based on Psalm 81:16, which tells of a land so rich that when rocks were cracked open, honey flowed from them.

Sweet Honey in the Rock has received several Grammy Award nominations, including one for their children’s album, “Still the Same Me,” which received the Silver Award from the National Association of Parenting Publications. The group won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for their version of Lead Belly’s “Grey Goose” from the compilation album “Folkways: A Vision Shared.”

The group has featured more than 20 vocalists since its creation. Sweet Honey in The Rock now includes six vocalists – founding members Louise Robinson and Carol Maillard along Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Rochelle Rice, and Christi Dashiell – plus Romeir Mendez on acoustic bass and electric bass and American Sign Language Interpreter Barbara Hunt.

For Maillard, the show at Annenberg is a homecoming event. She grew up in Philadelphia, attended elementary school at Gesu School and graduated from Hallahan High School.

“It’s always special for me to come back to Philadelphia,” said Maillard, during a phone interview Tuesday from her home in New York. “I went to grade school and high school there.

“Then, I went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I started as a violin performance major at Catholic University and then switched to theater.”

Maillard is an accomplished actress and has performed in film, television, and on stage. Her theater credits encompass a wide range of styles from musical comedy and revues to drama and experimental. She has performed on and off Broadway (“Eubie,” “Don’t Get God Started,” “Comin’ Uptown,” “Home,” “It’s So Nice To Be Civilized,” “Beehive,” “Forever My Darling”); with the Negro Ensemble Company (“Home,” “Zooman and the Sign,” “Colored Peoples Time,” “The Great Mac Daddy”); and the New York Shakespeare Festival (“Spunk,” “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” “Under Fire,” “A Photograph…”).

Maillard has also performed in Ntozake Shange’s “Betsey Brown” at the American Musical Theatre Festival and also at the Actors Studio (Hunter). She can be seen in the feature films “Beloved” and “Thirty Years to Life.” On television, Maillard has appeared in “For Colored Girls Who Have ConsideredSuicide” and “Halleluiah!” (PBS), and “Law and Order: SVU.”

Although she originally attended Catholic University of America on scholarship as a Violin Performance major, Maillard soon began writing music and performing with the Drama Department and eventually changed her major to Theater. This passion for the stage brought her to the D.C. Black Repertory Company and the beginnings of the vocal ensemble that was to become Sweet Honey In The Rock. 

“There have been over 20 different women in the group since it first started,” said Maillard. “The group we have now includes two founding members — Louise Robinson, who left and then came back in 2004, and me. I left at the end of the 1970s to pursue other interests and then came back in 1992.

“I’ve done Broadway and also national tours. I don’t know if I’d do a national tour again. There are a lot of factors involved. One of my favorite Broadway shows was ‘Home.’ I got to play a lot of different characters.

“I love Sweet Honey in the Rock because of life and who I am. I love our culture – how we were raised – and living in America. With Sweet Honey, people come up to us and tell us how our music has improved their lives.”

With a history than spans almost a quarter of a century, Sweet Honey has a lot of material that has become fan favorites – and group standards. Getting all this into a single concert takes work.

“It’s really challenging but there are many ways we get it done,” said Maillard. “New material keeps coming into the group’s repertoire and a lot of older material is still in our repertoire too. We keep making CDs so we always try to fit in songs from whichever in the latest. We keep writing and keep coming up with new ideas. Our show touches on the history of the group and where we are now. We really do try to stay contemporary.

“The set list for each show depends on the person who is putting the songs together and how much rehearsal we’ve had. Some things we carry through. Each city is different, and we try to make sure we don’t just repeat what we did there the last time we were in that city. For this weekend’s show in Philly, it’s Nitanju’s turn to make the list.

Sweet Honey in the Rock’s most recent album, release “#LoveInEvolution,” was released in 2016.

“There’s no new album yet but we’re talking about it,” said Maillard. “Currently, things are different in how music is being put out. We’re going to do a single in October.”

Video link for Sweet Honey in the Rock – https://youtu.be/GBlT7FwWrfI.

The show at Annenberg Center will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $79.

Penny & Sparrow

If you saw a listing for a concert by Penny & Sparrow and you never heard of the act, you might think it was a female R&B duo or maybe a pair of ladies strumming guitars and singing Americana tunes.

And, if that’s what you were thinking, you’d be way off the mark.

Penny & Sparrow, who are headlining a show on September 21 at The Foundry at Fillmore Philadelphia (1100 Canal Street, Philadelphia, 215-309-0150,www.thefillmorephilly.com), are actually a pair if musical dudes from Texas — Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke.

They met in Austin, Texas when they were students at the University of Texas. Baxter, who is a Dallas native, was a biology major on a pre-med track. Jahnke, who hails from Fort Worth, was a radio/television/film major.

“We were college roommates,” said Baxter, during a phone interview Thursday afternoon from a tour stop in Washington, D.C.

“I was living in a house with 10 guys in my final semester. Andy and his girlfriend asked if they could move in and everybody in the house was fine with it because it meant less rent for each to pay. The first time I met Andy was when he came there.

“That was in 2009. I was learning guitar at the time and Andy has always been a good singer. I kept learning songs and he’d sing along. Slowly, I started singing harmony on top.”

Eventually, they developed into a music act.

“We never intended this to be a full-time career,” said Baxter. “At first, it was just for fun. Our first gigs were playing fundraisers for friends. Going on tour was something we and our wives wanted to do just for a change. I had been working on a grant for a non-profit and that ended. So, we decided to book a summer tour for fun – for a summer vacation.

“We had just put out our first EP and our first album. With the world of the internet and iTunes, people were able to find our music.”

Penny & Sparrow started their band discography with the “Creature” EP in August 2011 and followed with the “Tenboom” album in January 2013.

“Our second album was ‘Struggle Pretty,’ which came out in 2014,” said Baxter. “Now, we have six albums.”

The band’s “Let a Lover Drown You” album was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with John Paul White as the producer. Penny and Sparrow followed with the “Wendigo” album, which was recorded in the Single Lock Studio in Florence, Alabama and released in August 2017.
“Everything was recorded with our old friend Chris Jacobie,” said Baxter. “Everything was D.I.Y. Chris has a studio in his house that we use.

“After 2016, we said to each other that we felt that this was our job now. We love it. No matter what the income, we love making music.”

On August 2, 2019, Penny & Sparrow released their new album, “Finch,” via Thirty Tigers.

“We recorded ‘Finch’ last year and finished it early this year – in February,” said Baxter, who now lives in Waco, Texas while Jahnke lives in Florence, Alabama.

“Half of it was done at Chris Jacobie’s studio in San Antonio. For the other half, Andy worked on it at his friend’s house in Florence. After we recorded ‘Let a Lover Drown You’ in Florence, Andy fell in love with the city and moved there with his wife.

“When we were making ‘Finch,’ we sent tracks back-and-forth to each other. We had never done it this way before. In the beginning, we didn’t think it would work out, but we still gave it a shot. Luckily, it worked out. I do 75-80 per cent of the music and Andy does 75-80 per cent of the words – with a little bleed on both sides.”

The deeply vulnerable and boldly cinematic “Finch” was written during their first major break from the road in years. The album focuses a profound awakening that altered their perceptions of masculinity, sex, religion, divorce, friendship, vanity, purpose, and, perhaps most importantly, self.

According to Baxter, “We were both brought up in the conservative South, where you’re instilled with the notion that the straight white Evangelical Christian male perspective is, if not the only, then the most correct view.

“We didn’t understand how wrong that was until we went out and experienced the world for ourselves. Almost everything changed for us in these last two years. It was a painful experience in a lot of ways, but it was also a joyful one.”

The result was “Finch” – an album that succeeds on many levels.

“Sonically, we’ve started getting a little more rhythmic,” Saud Baxter. “The most important thing is that it is something that is easy to listen to.”

Video link for Penny & Sparrow — https://youtu.be/dvFimLs-TLU.

The show at The Foundry at Fillmore Philadelphia on September 21, which has Caroline Spence as the opener, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.

Other upcoming shows at The Foundry are Bars and Melody on September 22, flor on September 24 and Rocket Summer on September 25.

Chris Smither

A lot of rock and folk musicians have not been able to live for more than 50 years. Many, many rock and folk musicians have been able to mount careers that have lasted for more than five years.

A notable exception has been Chris Smither, who is headlining a show at The Locks at Sona (4417 Main Street, Manayunk, 484- 273-0481, sonapub.com) on September 21.

The veteran singer-songwriter has released more than 25 albums in his long career. His most recent LP is “Call Me Lucky,” which was released on March 2, 2018 on Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert and distributed by Redeye.

Smither’s career as a musician covers a time period that spans more than a half-century.

“I’ve been writing songs for 55 years,” said Smither, during a recent phone interview from his home in western Massachusetts. “My 50th anniversary of performing came in 2016.

“Right now, I’m not in the studio. I’m just doing a lot of shows. But I’m only doing about 100 a year. That’s about half of what I did in the past. About three years ago, I realized I didn’t have to work as hard as I had been.”

“Call Me Lucky” is his first set of brand-new originals in seven years. Recorded at the Blue Rock Studio in the Texas foothills, the album features Smither trademark songs that offer commentary on the human condition along with a few surprise covers.

“I never build up songs between albums,” said Smither. “I don’t start writing until I think it’s time to make a record. It had been two years since I made the retrospective album.

“My philosophy is that when it’s time to make an album, then it’s time to book the studio and line up musicians. That way, you have a deadline to keep you on track.”

“Call Me Lucky” features longtime producer and multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich, drummer Billy Conway (Morphine), Matt Lorenz (aka The Suitcase Junket), Mike Meadows, and engineer Keith Gary. They went into the session to record10 songs. What they ended up with is a double record. Disc 1 features the eight originals and two covers they started with. Disc 2 catapults some of the very same songs into another dimension — essentially Smither covering Smither.

“I recorded the new album about two years ago,” said Smither. “I spent nine weeks of writing. Every day that I was home, I’d sit down and write. I don’t write in the road much – maybe just snippets of guitar parts. The lyrics I always do at home – usually in the morning.

“I almost always have the guitar parts when I finish. I do the guitar part and then the melody with scat singing – just sort of nonsense syllables – figuring out what the rhymes will be. Then, a line of a phrase will pop out.

“Sometimes, I have a line or an idea that will come to me and I write it on a Post-It note. My songwriting is a funny process. It’s very foggy in the beginning. I start writing and then the idea develops. It’s almost like a word game – but it’s not a puzzle to me. It’s a teasing out of what my subconscious wants.”

The writing of a song is just one part of the song’s evolution.

“Once you finish writing a song, you never know how it’s going to go until you play it for people,” said Smither. “Sometimes, it’s not until you perform live that you realize a line doesn’t work.

“We recorded the album in Wimberley, Texas at Blue Rock Studio. It’s in the middle of nowhere so there are no distractions. You get totally immersed. I couldn’t believe how deep we got into it. We worked each song individually and in 10 days the album was done. When we listened back the first time, we were delighted.”

Smither is deeply appreciative of his longevity as a musician.

“It’s hard to believe I’ve been making music all these years — but it’s what I do,” said Smither. “I’m still doing a fair amount of live shows.”

Smither’s sophomore album “Don’t Drag It On” came out in 1971. He didn’t get into releasing albums regularly again until 1991.

“In the mid-80s, I quit drinking and got healthy again,” said Smither. “I was lucky. I’m one of the survivors. I was in pretty bad shape — but nothing irreversible. Quitting was enough to get me back to good health.

“When I was drinking, I stopped doing music full-time. I only did occasional gigs. I was keeping ends together doing carpentry and construction work. One day, this woman I knew asked me — what do you do? I said — I’m a carp …  and that was all I could say.

“It was right then that I realized that I’m a musician — that’s what I do. I started getting back into music. It was sort of serendipitous — opportunity meeting the prepared. I ran into people who were interested in representing me. It didn’t take that long to get back. The first year or two — it was a lot of work.

“But I still had a reputation for being a pretty good singer and guitar player. The first album that came out then was ‘It Ain’t Easy.’ Actually, I recorded it when I was still drunk. We just wanted to put something out. After that, I started to work steadily. I put out ‘Another Way to Find You’ in 1991 and ‘Happier Blue’ in 1993. ‘Happier Blue’ did really well.”

Since then, Smither has been releasing albums on a fairly regular basis – Up on the Lowdown” (1995),  “Small Revelations” (1997),   Drive You Home Again” (1999),  “Live as I’ll Ever Be” (2000),  “Train Home” (2003),  “Honeysuckle Dog” (2005),  “Leave the Light On” (2006), “Time Stands Still” (2009),  “Lost and Found” (2011), “Hundred Dollar Valentine” (2012), “Still on the Levee” (2014), and “Call Me Lucky” (2018).

“I haven’t really started working on a new album yet,” said Smither. “I just recently started fooling around – guitar licks, progressions, melody ideas. I can’t even start on the lyrics until all the other stuff is done.”

Video link for Chris Smither – https://youtu.be/finEkGmLs-4.

The show at The Locks at Sona will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.

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