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The La MaMa Cantata review by Martin Denton
November 7, 2011

Yesterday (November 7th) was Ellen Stewart's birthday; she would have been 92. As a fitting tribute to the late La MaMa founder/force of nature that was Ms. Stewart—and as a thrilling kickoff to a new "Monday Nights Series" at the iconic 50-years-young indie theater treasure on East 4th Street—Elizabeth Swados brought her new work La MaMa Cantata to the stage of the Ellen Stewart Theatre. It repeats again tonight, and if you want to see the best musical in town, head on over there. I feel privileged to have witnessed its premiere; left the theater feeling renewed and inspired. I hope the folks at La MaMa see fit to bring it back soon for a good long run, as this extraordinary piece of theater should be shared with as many people as possible.

La MaMa Cantata channels the spirit and vision of Ellen Stewart, no small feat, but one brilliantly managed by Swados, who worked with Stewart for the past four decades. In a program note, Swados tell us

Of course it's not the whole story. That would take an epic—2 epics. I tried to celebrate my love for the woman and her remarkable theatrical vision....Since this is a cantata and not a linear biography of Ellen, the structure is not so much a story but a carnival....

Precisely! Like the best works at La MaMa over the years, the Cantata is a dazzling showcase of diversity and imagination. It is through-sung, and the cast (18 alarmingly talented young singer/actors) remains stationed behind a row of mikes or on chairs throughout. But the places Swados and her collaborators take us in 75 minutes! We journey with Ellen from her deliberately veiled past (in Louisiana via Chicago) to her first day in New York City, where a quick stop in St. Patrick's Cathedral proved literally life-changing. We watch her set up her first theater on East 9th Street, hear about her hagglings with miscellaneous city officials and her outrageous adventures finding new talent and spreading her unique theatrical gospel all over the world. We witness her many moods and celebrate her fabled trademark quirks and foibles. The performance begins with the ringing of a bell, appropriately enough; and there's a delicious song midway through the proceedings called "Another Night at La MaMa":

And it's another night at La MaMa.
Wonder, grace, ridiculousness, fear, love love love
The Mother Courage of the avante-garde opens the door
Beautiful smile, the magic begins
Love the never knowing what will happen

Swados's score is magnificently varied, and filled with emotion. The words are mostly Ellen's, with commentary from many of her collaborators taken from the La MaMa archives, along with a few passages from St. John and Corinthians to honor Ms. Stewart's spiritual side. If you know La MaMa and its special energy, you'll feel it pulsing through every moment of the Cantata:

Never apologize
Never be sorry
For being loud
For being funny
For being freaky
For making jokes
For making art
For making love!

The performers communicate all of this with passion and joy. Six actors play Ellen Stewart (five women and a man): Starr Busby, Charnele Crick, Preston Martin, Grace McLean, Alicia Olatuja, and Maya Sharpe, who together embody the larger-than-life figure she was. A trio (Catherine Brookman, Rachael Duddy, and Hannah Whitney) provide gorgeous harmony; Michael Castillejos and Shaina Taub perform a stunning piece called "Shalom/Salaam"; and Jeanna Phillips plays a younger Liz Swados with great humor and humility. The rest of the company—Max Bisantz, Nicolas Caycedo, Roe Hartrampf, Tom Hennes, Josephine Huang, and Edwin Sutton—each get at least one moment to shine. Yukio Tsuji and Matt Hankle are on percussion and drums, and leading the piece beautifully is musical director/arranger Kris Kukul.

In all, this is the tribute that Ellen Stewart deserves, and a heart-filling and unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to witness it. May it have a long and bounteous life.