Monday, May 21, 2018

Still Looking For That Silver Lining

As the world watches Donald Trump try to tear apart the fabric of the United States like a hungry velociraptor while schoolchildren are being murdered on a regular basis, one can't help but wonder if we're heading into as dark a period as the 1980s, when people were dropping like flies from AIDS with no hope in sight. During that bleak period Congress refused to take action, the White House didn't want to be accused of helping "those people," and the religious right pompously claimed that AIDS was God's way of killing gay people to prove how evil they were. Even with all our advances in medicine and technology, it seems as if our society is determined to travel back in time. As shocking and disgusting as it sounds:
As I embrace my membership in a demographic where short-term memory becomes increasingly challenging while long-term memory remains surprisingly reliable, I'm thankful for the rich archive of musical memories I've accumulated throughout my life. In moments when it seems as if hatred and despair are becoming America's defaults, I often look to lyrics from forgotten musicals for solace.

One of my favorite numbers has always been a song Mary Martin sang in 1963's ill-fated Jennie (a musical based on the life of actress Laurette Taylor).

Two songs sung by Mildred Natwick in Kander and Ebb's short-lived 1971 musical, 70, Girls, 70, are guaranteed tonics.

The other day, a lyric written by Sidney Michaels for 1964's Ben Franklin Paris suddenly came to mind. Its combination of wisdom, kindness, and timeless grace immediately brought a smile to my face.
"Look for small pleasures that happen every day
And not for fortune or fame.
Infinite treasures lie all along the way.
As do candles waiting for flame.
How simple the joys at our fingertips,
This plain air we share is champagne one sips.

Look for small pleasures upon this ball of clay
And not for lightning to tame
And one day there's someone
Just a friendly someone
Who'll be husband or wife to you,
Be the love of all your life to you
And you'll find how great small pleasures can prove."
In the quarter century since San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon debuted in 1993 and the New York City Center launched Encores! in 1994, their audiences have had the pleasure of rediscovering songs that quickly faded from the Broadway scene. While YouTube has become an invaluable resource for musical research, some of these musical numbers rekindle moments of laughter, intimacy, tenderness, and love that cry out from a distant past for renewed attention.

* * * * * * * * *
As part of its "Back To Our Roots" series which celebrates the company's 25th anniversary. 42nd Street Moon recently offered two concert performances of 1933's Pardon My English (which features music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind). The plot is a grand exercise in silliness which revolves around the fact that a key character suffers from the peculiar side effects of a head injury.

Golo Schmidt is the proud proprietor of a speakeasy in Dresden named Club 21. Deeply in love with Gita (whom he refers to as his "pulchritudinous Polish parlor girl from Potsdam"), Golo's venue -- which requires a secret password in order for guests to enter -- has been thriving for a most peculiar reason. In order to promote German beers and wines, the government has forbidden the sale of non-alcoholic beverages.

In a world turned upside down by Prohibition laws designed to transform the United States into a "dry" country, Americans traveling in Europe are desperate to find safe places where they can order such newly-illegal luxuries as cream soda and ginger ale.

En route to a birthday celebration for Police Commissioner Bauer, Golo is in an accident which leaves him unconscious. He is taken to Bauer's home where, upon awakening, he mysteriously assumes the identity of Michael Bramleigh, a wealthy and "veddy proper" British sophisticate. As he recovers, he starts to fall in love with Bauer's daughter, Frieda.

Unfortunately, a fellow Brit named Dickie Carter instantly recognizes Bramleigh. When a birdcage falls on Golo's head, he completely forgets about Bramleigh and resumes his identity as Golo. The plot keeps thickening as people collide with him (resulting in a fall in which his head hits the ground) or someone hits him over the head with a book.

As directed by Cindy Goldfield (with Dave Dobrusky serving as music director), the cast featured Danielle Cheiken as Frieda, Stephanie Prentice as Gita, Will Giammona as Dickie Carter, Juan Castro as a frustrated innkeeper, and Katherine Cooper as Bauer's maid, Magda. With Martin Rojas Dietrich as Police Commissioner Bauer and Scottie Watson doubling as Golo and Michael, mistaken identity proved to be a key ingredient in the musical's plotline.

The show's libretto by Fields and Ryskind is filled with the kind of bad puns and well-aimed zingers that can leave an audience alternately howling and groaning with delight. Not to be overlooked are the joys of reveling in the sheer giddiness of Ira Gershwin's lyrics (keep in mind that Pardon My English premiered at the height of the Great Depression). The following three songs are perfect examples of what can happen when a brilliant lyricist is having fun with words.

* * * * * * * * *
On August 14, 1996, a musical revue entitled Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly opened off-Broadway at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. The reason Crabtree's name was in the title is simple. Just days after finishing work on the show, the beloved costume designer died of AIDS on June 28, 1996. As his collaborator, Mark Waldrop (who wrote the lyrics and sketches and directed the original production) remarked at the time, "It's a show inspired by costumes and, just by extension, the exuberance of Howard's spirit and his desire to just put it out there. Without Howard, it's inconceivable that I would have written a gay revue."

Although a revival at New York's Stage 42 had been announced for the Fall of 2017 (with costumes to be designed by Bob Mackie), at the last minute an important investor withdrew from the project and the production had to be cancelled. Thankfully, no such problem arose for San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, which had staged When Pigs Fly in 2003 and is reviving the show this month to mark the 15th anniversary of its San Francisco premiere.

With music by Dick Gallagher and musical direction by Joe Wicht, the show revolves around Crabtree (a gay high school student with a florid imagination) who arrives for his appointment with a guidance counselor dressed in white chaps covered with feathers and a cowboy hat sporting a band of rhinestones.

J. Conrad Frank as Howard Crabtree and Ryan Vasquez as Baby Jane
in a scene from When Pigs Fly (Photo by: Lois Tema)

After Miss Roundhole informs Howard that his aptitude tests point to a career in watch repair, garden supply, chicken farming, or plumbing (and warns that his dreams of becoming a big star in show business will only come true "when pigs fly"), Howard decides to take Miss Roundhole's bitter lemons and turn them into musical comedy lemonade. With the kind of desperate flair for creative recycling familiar to gay men who go "garage sailing" on weekends, Crabtree sets out to prove that there is no such thing as being "too gay."

Chris Plank and Philippe Gosselin sing "Light in the Loafers"
in a scene from When Pigs Fly (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Directed by Ed Decker, NCTC's production has been choreographed by Jayne Zaban on Devin Kasper's unit set. Philippe Gosselin has fun performing "Not All Man" as a clueless centaur. David Bicha brings down the house as the Melody Barn's producer (Carol Ann Knippel) who is boldly going where no other artistic director has gone.

Fully-figured audience members whose bodacious curves can whet a chubby chaser's appetite will take extra pleasure in Chris Plank's rendition of "Bigger Is Better," which he performs while decked out in a garish costume whose inspiration is half burlesque stripper and half Army tank.

For this year's revival, costumes have been designed by Keri Fitch, Wes Crain, and Jorge Hernandez, with wig design by David Carver-Ford and prop design by Ting Na Wang. The following publicity shots show David Bicha proudly modeling two of his costumes from the show.

David Bicha sings the Mermaid Song in a scene
from When Pigs Fly (Photo by: Lois Tema)

David Bicha shows what happens When Pigs Fly (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Because of its outrageously over-the-top costumes, numerous sight gags, and barbed sense of humor, When Pigs Fly is sometimes described as a gay version of Steve Silver's long-running Beach Blanket Babylon. Whereas the three torch songs in the original production mocked Rush Limbaugh, Strom Thurmond and Newt Gingrich, NCTC's revival features a sassy Ryan Vasquez performing super gay odes to the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Vladimir Putin. When Pigs Fly's patriotic Act I finale is every bit as moving as the gay anthem Jerry Herman wrote for Albin ("I Am What I Am") in 1983's La Cage aux Folles.

Back in 2003, I attended two performances of When Pigs Fly simply because I enjoyed the show so much. If this revival seemed to be missing a little bit of spark, it's certainly not because of the five-man cast led by J. Conrad Frank as Howard Crabtree. Instead I would point to several factors that might impact those who revisit this ebullient revue.
  • Shows which depend on visual "reveals" that genuinely surprise the audience (ranging from Beach Blanket Babylon to murder mysteries like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and The Mousetrap) often lose their ability to surprise audience members who come back for a second exposure.
  • Since the 1982 debut of Gerard Alessandrini's razor-sharp Forbidden Broadway, theatre queens have developed a greater appreciation for theatrical in-jokes and snarky send-ups.
  • Since 2009, when Ru Paul's Drag Race began its successful run on cable television, audiences have been continuously astounded by outrageous costumes -- so much so that, by today's standards, the costumes created for When Pigs Fly now seem almost quaint.
This is not to denigrate NCTC's merry production, but to simply point out how audience expectations have changed since 1996. The show is still great fun and extremely entertaining. Performances of When Pigs Fly continue through June 10 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: