Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Taking Note

My father was tone deaf. Although he enjoyed listening to Broadway shows, I never heard him sing anything other than "Happy Birthday To You." Nor do I recall his ever playing a musical instrument.

However, over many years of attending opera, musical theatre, and live concerts, I've developed an acute sensitivity to how music enhances certain dramatic moments. Sometimes the power of a film score may grab me with greater intensity than the movie's script. At other times, a passage of music is so beautifully matched to the action that their artistic strengths unite to create pure magic. Earlier this year, at screenings of Chicken With Plums, I was deeply impressed by the beauty of Olivier Bernet's film score (as well as the fact that it ended with the perfect note placed at the perfect moment).

Poster art for Chicken With Plums

A singer's talent for phrasing, coloration, and understanding a lyric's intent can make all the difference in the world. In his recent article in The New York Times entitled Gifts of Voice That Keep On Giving, music critic Anthony Tommasini paid tribute to how carefully 70-year-old Barbra Streisand and 85-year-old Barbara Cook had taken care of their vocal instruments through decades of interpreting the American songbook.
“The best pop singers seem never to age. Look at Frank Sinatra. You cannot say his singing declined as he matured; rather, it changed, mellowed and took on more vocal weight and emotional depth. He may have given some shaky performances toward the end, but no one said he was too old to sing. Like Ms. Cook, Ms. Streisand has had to learn to adjust her vocal artistry as her voice has weathered. High notes do not come as easily, though even in her vocal prime, Ms. Streisand’s high range was not her comfort zone. In those days, whether she let a top note shimmer with penetrating power or coaxed her voice to reach the peak of a phrase with breathy expressivity, her singing was driven by the instincts of a born actress who was using her voice ‘as a means to an end’ (as Ms. Streisand explained in a 2009 interview). Both [Ms. Streisand and Ms. Cook] offer inspiring examples of how to adapt artistry to changes in vocal capacities.”
I wish I could say the same for Shirley Jones, who made her debut at The Rrazz Room this week singing songs from her most popular movie musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Music Man) as well as some cabaret chestnuts by Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers & Hart.

In her heyday, Ms. Jones (whom I saw in 1968's short-lived Maggie Flynn) had a beautiful lyric soprano. Now 79 and the proud grandmother of 12, her voice has grown huskier in its lower range and she has become more of a belter.

While some of Jones's choices were unnerving ("Can't Help Lovin' Dat' Man" from 1927's Show Boat and the strangest interpretation of "Send in the Clowns" I've ever heard), the most shocking aspect of her performance was her continual difficulty finding the correct pitch. Although Ms. Jones has retained a rich, warm sound with no discernible wobble (and no obvious signs of fraying), her aim, though well-intentioned, is often haphazard. Many of the problems she encountered could easily be solved by redefining her comfort zone and making a simple investment in having her arrangements transposed down by about a third.

Having perfect pitch can be a blessing or a curse. It's handy when learning music to know that you don't have to worry about understanding one note's relationship to another. But it can just as easily become a nagging curse that makes one acutely aware of how a singer's pitch problems are sabotaging her performance.

While Ms. Jones did none of the scooping some performers rely on late in their careers, her hit-and-miss approach to many phrases was the aural equivalent of watching a pilot try to land a plane in strong crosswinds. No skid marks, but many moments of alarm and uncertainty.

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One doesn't expect a dramatization of The Iliad to get upstaged by some hipster rushing into the theatre with his bicycle, but that's exactly what happens during the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Homer's epic poem. Conceived by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, their 100-minute-long monologue is powerfully performed by Henry Woronicz under Peterson's careful direction.

When the creative team first put this production together at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, they worked carefully to find a way for the poet (Homer) to address the audience as contemporaries so that his account of the Trojan War could seem fresh and relevant.

Sometimes strange things happen to me during a live performance. One would think that Homer's tale of the Trojan War would be enough to keep anyone's mind busy but, as I watched the performance, I felt myself bookmarking chapters of Homer's tale by successive lighting cues, costume adjustments, and transitions bookended by the repositioning of a chair, door, or table.

What riveted my attention, however, was Brian Ellingsen's magnetic performance as the musician/muse who accompanies Homer's tragic song. One rarely gets to hear a double bass used as a solo instrument (except, perhaps, in jazz ensembles). But Mark Bennett's piercing score (whether melodic or percussive, whether capturing the wooden sonority of a double bass or the metallic ring of a nearby stanchion) grabbed my attention and became the most powerful force of the evening for me.

Henry Woronicz and Brian Ellingsen in An Iliad
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a fierceness to match the love between Achilles and Patroclus, the ominous percussiveness necessary to narrate a tale of war, and the sonorous sounds to match King Priam's sorrow as he begs for the body of his slain son, Hector, Bennett's music became an integral part of the story in the most remarkable way. While I don't wish to diminish Henry Woronicz's bravura performance as a storyteller, it was Bennett's music that made the evening soar for me.

There are many golden moments in the retelling of Homer's story which parallel the futility of our two recent wars in the Middle East. If Woronicz's recital of the names of wars men have fought from ancient times up to the present doesn't send a chill up your spine, you've probably lost all hope of learning anything from history. Performances of An Iliad continue through November 18 at Berkeley Rep's Thrust stage (click here to order tickets).

Henry Woronicz as The Poet in An Iliad (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Snap, Crackle, and Populism

Christmas 2012 has a big treat in store for fans of musical theatre. As people salivate over the thought of watching Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Jean Valjean in the film adaptation of Les Misérables, it's interesting to recall how the French Revolution gave birth to the populist movement (which favors the needs of the people over those of the elites).

Although many songs have been written about the need to seize the day and take control of one's destiny ("Marry The Man Today," "On The Other Side of the Tracks," "Before The Parade Passes By," "One Person Can Change The World," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"), few have crossed international borders as successfully as "Do You Hear the People Sing."

While the trajectory of Barack Obama's life has been an inspiration to millions, like many presidents, his popularity has given new careers to those who can impersonate him with some degree of credibility.  Consider the fascinating story of Louis Ortiz, an unemployed Puerto Rican who was transformed into the "Bronx Obama."

The rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, and the urgency of this year's Presidential election have thrown the battle between the 1% and the 99% into stark contrast. This fall, Bay area audiences have a unique opportunity to experience a musical and two documentaries devoted to three great American politicians, each a populist leader from a remarkably different generation.

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The San Francisco Playhouse recently celebrated its tenth anniversary by moving into its new home in the former Post Street Theatre. To launch the company's season with a bang, artistic director Bill English chose to stage the Bay area premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Directed by Bay area wunderkind Jon Tracy (using a unit set designed by his brilliantly talented wife, Nina Ball), opening night marked an important milestone in the growth of this small company with big dreams and high artistic standards.

As Bill English explains:
"For our might and our hubris, we owe much to Andrew Jackson. And so, it's illuminating to take a fresh look.  His presidency gave flesh to seminal elements of our national American character which have made us, for better or worse, who we are today. He invented American Populism, the concept that 'the people' know better than 'the elite.'  He also created the concept of manifest destiny, the notion that the entire breadth of the continent somehow belonged to us.
By using young actors to play all the roles, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson stresses not only what a young country we were then, but what a young cauldron of contradictions we still are: violent and humane; acquisitive and generous. AJ exemplified these qualities. Even as we condemn some of his more violent acts, we are drawn into a compassionate understanding of the struggles he faced."
Ashkon Davaran stars in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Photo by:  Jessica Palopoli)

With a book by Alex Timbers (who wrote for The Pee-wee Herman Show) and music by Michael Friedman, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offers audiences an interesting mix of edutainment.
  • While Friedman's music has some powerful dramatic moments (I especially liked what El Beh did with "Ten Little Indians), I doubt people will be humming any tunes from the show after they leave the theatre.
  • While Timbers' script is filled with profanity, it makes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson the perfect vehicle to introduce young audiences to the theatre in a way that will speak their language.
  • In a time when Barack Obama is being criticized for having become more extreme than George W. Bush in some areas of high-tech spying, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reveals how those who ascend to power often find themselves forced to take actions which contradict their initial goals.
  • Through its use of song, sarcasm, and stage savvy, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson accomplishes a tremendous amount of exposition about the good parts of Jackson's history as well as his genocidal relocation of American Indian tribes (i.e. The Indian Removal Act of 1930 and The Trail of Tears).
Safiya Fredericks, Daniel Antonio VIgil, and Ashkon Davaran in
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Whereas the recent production of American Idiot tried to blast audiences out of their seats in the Orpheum Theatre, I was fascinated to see how music director and bandleader Jonathan Fadner kept the music at a level which invited audiences into the drama without ever overpowering them. Many of the cast members double as instrumentalists:
Presidents Louis J. Calhoun (Williajm Elsman), Martin van Buren
(Michael Barrett Austin),  Henry Clay (Safiya Fredericks) and
James Monroe (Lucas Hatton) conspire against Andrew Jackson
in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In addition to Davaran's driving performance as Andrew Jackson, Angel Burgess scored strongly as Jackson's wife, Rachel, while Safiya Fredericks did double duty as Henry Clay and Jackson's Indian friend, Black Fox. Ann Hopkins harvested one laugh after another as the show's Storyteller.

Do I think Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a  great musical?  Hell, no!  But it's a lot of fun, staged with endless energy by Jon Tracy and performed by an exuberant cast eager to entertain (I'll bet some of the teachers who accompany San Francisco Playhouse's "Rising Stars" to performances of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson might get some new ideas on how to make history relevant to today's students).

Performances of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continue through November 24 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Few 20th century American politicians were as deeply loved as Robert F. Kennedy. In her HBO documentary, simply entitled Ethel, Kennedy's last child interviews her famously shy mother about the family's history, what politics was like in the 1950s and 1960s, and how the Kennedy family has managed to cope with so many personal tragedies.

For those who remember JFK's younger brother, his infectious smile, his tireless work on behalf of the poor, and his final campaign, Rory Kennedy's documentary delivers plenty of laughs and a sense of awe at Ethel Kennedy's true grit (she once left a note in the FBI's suggestion box encouraging it to get a new director who could replace J. Edgar Hoover).

There are many moments of tenderness that the public has not always shared with the Kennedy family. One occurs when RFK returns from the Deep South, shaken by the poverty he has witnessed, and explains to his family how lucky they are. Throughout the film, it is a constant sweet surprise to hear all of the Kennedy children refer to Ethel as "Mummy."

If you don't have access to HBO, be sure to rent Ethel when it comes out on DVD. Expect to feel plenty of hot tears slowly streaming down your cheeks as you marvel at Ethel Skakel Kennedy's personal strength and wonder what might have been had her husband lived longer. Here's the trailer:

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Those of us who have been utterly repulsed by the GOP's War on Women (transvaginal ultrasounds, attempts to redefine "forcible rape," threats to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, etc.,) were thrilled by the recent performances of Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley as debate moderators. However, nothing in recent weeks compared to Julia Gillard's performance when the Prime Minister of Australia laid into the member head of the opposition party, Tony Abbott.

As I watched Gillard speak, I thought "Somewhere up in heaven, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins are smiling." Those who admired the 45th Governor of Texas won't want to miss a new documentary entitled Ann Richards' Texas that will be screened during the 2012 San Francisco DocuFest at the Roxie Theatre next month.

Richards was one powerful combination of brains and experience who never hesitated to speak truth to power ("Poor George, he can't help it.  He was born with a silver foot in his mouth!"). Not only is this film a delight from start to finish, it offers viewers a bracing reminder of what we've been missing from American politics: Strong women who aren't afraid to put stupid, misogynistic men in their place.

While the film contains cameos by President Bill Clinton, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Nancy Pelosi, and various news reporters, no one could ever hold a candle to Ann Richards. Here's the trailer:

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Objects of Their Affection

If you've been reading any of the questionnaires on Internet dating sites, you've probably come across the following description of someone's relationship:  "It's complicated." That could mean that the person is in an open relationship, has a very jealous cat, has multiple friends with benefits, or is extremely devoted to one person until the next hot number passes through his field of vision. As David Duran recently wrote on The Huffington Post "Your Boyfriend Lives With His Husband?"

On November 9, 1938, Mary Martin made a smashing Broadway debut with her rendition of Cole Porter's song, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, during the opening night performance of Leave It To Me! Years later, she confessed to having absolutely no idea that finnan haddie was one of Porter's sexual innuendos.

Ten years later, Porter continued to poke fun at fidelity in Kiss Me, Kate. Here's Ann Miller singing "Always True To You In My Fashion" to Tommy Rall in the 1953 film version of Porter's musical.

Some people take the "carpe diem" approach to enhancing their love lives. Others like to set their goals high and expect to settle for nothing less.

In the long run, success is a measure of how flexible one can be when it comes to accommodating romantic expectations that are wildly unrealistic.

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The Left Coast Theatre Company recently offered an evening of short plays under the catch-all title of "Family Programming." Two, in particular, dealt with people whose focus on a particular object of affection defied common sense. In Best Man, playwright Steven Korbar introduced the audience to Ben (George Duryea) and Ayre (Daniel O'Reilly) at a critical moment in their relationship.

Best friends since childhood, Ayre has always been as sure of his homosexuality as Ben has been sure of his heterosexuality. But, as Ben prepares to head to the altar on his wedding day, Ayre can't help but take one last shot at happiness, asking Ben if he really thinks that his fiancée is the right person to be his lifetime partner.

Ayre has always been so infatuated with Ben that  it has occasionally warped his judgment (he hired a male stripper for Ben's bachelor party). He also knows that the woman Ben plans to marry treats her groom like dirt and can be a real ball buster.  Faced with a last-chance moment, he asks Ben if his bride can really give him the kind of total, unselfish love that Arye has always wanted to give him.

Director Cheryl Simas Valenzuela captures a nice twist on the plight of the hopeless romantic by helping to make clear that Arye is telling Ben something that Ben inherently knows to be true but simply can't handle. George Duryea and Daniel O'Reilly made the best of a fairly lightweight script.

George Duryea and Daniel O'Reilly in Best Man

Later in the evening, playwright Rich Orloff gave the audience a new twist on America's fetish for honoring its troops. As directed by Joseph Frank, Betty (Laura Espino) finds herself in an awkward position.
  • On one hand, she's been dating Charlotte (Sarah Doherty), a really hot woman who never fails to thrill her.  
  • On the other hand, the woman she married who left to go serve her country in Afghanistan, has just returned home from the Middle East.  Needless to say, Francine (Angela Chandra) is eager to pick up where things left off.
Vowed and Wowed deftly demonstrates how smart women can work together to resolve a tense situation. The resulting threesome makes for the kind of relationship where each woman gets more than she bargained for and couldn't be happier.

Angela Chandra and Laura Espino in Vowed and Vowed

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There are times when an audience's reaction to an operatic performance veers off in opposite directions with regard to musicality and production values. I can think of no better example than the San Francisco Opera's current staging of I Capuletti e I Montecchi, a ravishing evening of music by Vincenzo Bellini which had its world premiere in Venice on March 11, 1830 at the Teatro La Fenice.

Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Conducted by Riccardo Frizza with an acute awareness of the score's bel canto riches, the evening was a magnificent triumph for mezzo soprano Joyce Didonato as Romeo and soprano Nicole Cabell as Giulietta. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu scored strongly as Tebaldo (Tybalt), with San Francisco Opera's Adler FellowAo Li, doing some exceptional singing as Lorenzo (Friar Laurence).  Surprisingly, the only soloist to disappoint was Eric Owens as Giulietta's father, Capellio.

Romeo (Joyce Didonato) and Juliet (Nicole Cabell) in
I Capuletti e i Montecchi/ (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

It's rare that I am so utterly appalled by a physical production, but set designer Vincent Lemaire, costume designer Christian Lacroix, and director Vincent Boussard merit top honors for laying a gigantic artistic turd on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. A co-production with Munich's famed Bayerische Staatsoper, the evening begins with a scrim that looks like a cross between some ancient cave paintings and an extremely murky Rorschach test. In his director's note, Boussard states that:
"We designed the production and the costumes, which function mainly to reveal the hidden and fragile interior of the characters, as an echo to the highly refined compositional style of the music.  The set acts as if a reminiscence of the most elaborate fresco would be sweating from the walls of this palace -- a box for Capellio's 'Jewel-lieta,' but also a jail and a grave for the two young lovers. The question we are left contemplating is the following: Is it possible that even the highest degree of love and the most refined culture are left utterly crippled when coupled with the cruelty and craziness of people sick with revenge?"
Romeo (Joyce Didonato) and Juliet (Nicole Cabell) in
I Capuletti e I Montecchi (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Well, hot diggity dawg, you could have fooled me! What I saw was a soprano forced to climb up on a ledge resembling a washbasin in order to sing a long, luscious aria while trying not to fall on her face. Later, when a barefoot Giuletta was precariously perched on the bottom part of a giant picture frame the size of the entire stage, Boussard had her crawl across a treacherously sloped platform nearly 15 feet above the stage floor. At that point I found myself giving mad props to Ms. Cabell for her bravery and willingness to tackle a fairly ridiculous challenge from a stage director while fantasizing about tar and feathers for Boussard.

Nicole Cabell as Giulietta (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While costume designer Christian Lacroix may have done a spectacular job of recycling old ballet and opera costumes in order to create the garish dresses worn by the female supernumeraries, Giulietta's wedding gown looked like something cobbled together using gift certificates from Ross Cross-Dress for Less and Bed, Bath & Beyond. This was a production to be heard and not seen.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Brutal Reality Checks

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine began an article in his series of pamphlets entitled The American Crisis with the statement "These are the times that try men's souls."  Barely six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 in Philadelphia, the country's founding fathers were wrestling with the task of defining and constructing a new government that could shape American society using the lessons they had learned from history and the dreams they imagined for the fledgling nation's future.

The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified on December 15, 1791. Known today as The Bill of Rights, they provide the legal foundation upon which American society has been built. Like many other structural concepts, they are the building blocks of an evolving concept, the blueprint for a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Like the Ten Commandments, The Bill of Rights could seem unassailable. But just as civilizations have evolved since Biblical times, so has our understanding of human behavior. Just as Galileo proved to the Vatican that the Earth revolves around the Sun (as opposed to the Sun revolving around the Earth), so has science revealed a wealth of information to us that could not previously have been imagined.
Answers to such questions are not merely "blowin' in the wind." They require a paradigm shift in one's acceptance of certain "givens." When those "givens" regard intensely personal matters of identity, the resulting conflict is often a source of inspiration for writers.

Three plays recently staged by Bay area theatre companies offer classic examples of how people cope with intense challenges to their core beliefs. Two were on a program of short plays presented by the Left Coast Theatre Company under the catch-all title of "Family Programming."  The third play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002.

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Residents of the Castro have been up in arms over the phenomenon of nude men walking around the neighborhood and posing for tourists while claiming to be exercising their freedom of self expression. While the reactions to their appearances range from titillation to disgust, from giggles to sighs of sadness and exasperation, the topic of sidewalk nudity provides the inspiration for James A. Martin's The Buck Naked Church of Truth. Directed by John Anderson Hamner, the play takes place in the outdoor seating area of Jane Warner Plaza.

Jeff (Chris Maltby) and Joy (Ariel Cohen) are visiting San Francisco from Kansas. Jeff, whose son is gay, is busily tapping away at his smart phone, proud that nothing anyone could do in the Castro could rattle his nerves. His fiancée, a good Christian woman who is eager to spend time with Jeff's son, is more than a little surprised when a homeless man wearing lots of make-up (Michael Erickson) approaches her with a crude drawing on a piece of cardboard and asks if she would like to purchase his "art."

Michael Erickson and Ariel Cohen in
The Buck Naked Church of Truth

When Joy finally spots Tony (Michael LeRoy), she's a bit unnerved by what she sees. Tony and his boyfriend, Evan (Louis Quiroz) are two of the Castro's happy nudists, calmly walking around the neighborhood as they enjoy the fresh air (the fog has obviously not come in yet).

Tony (Michael LeRoy) and Evan (Luis Quiroz) in a moment from
The Buck Naked Church of Truth

Upon looking up from his cell phone and seeing his son's naked body in front of him, Jeff quickly loses the battle to prove how tolerant he can be. As Tony describes the years of hard work and courage it took to finally accept himself as a gay man (and points to a long history of parental putdowns from his father), Jeff starts behaving more and more like a bully.

His transformation is quickly noticed by Joy, who is not at all happy with what she sees.  As she starts to hear Jeff spew more and more sexist ideas about gender roles (and witnesses how hurtful his words are to his son), Joy makes a startling move. Not only does she tell Jeff that he can leave and wait for her back at their hotel, she removes her blouse and bra and joins Tony and his friend as they parade around the Castro

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Written by Joseph Frank and directed by Scott Boswell, Cocktails With Maestro contains one of the nicest dramatic twists to be seen in years. Felix (George Duryea) and Sophie (Laura Espino) have recently moved into a new apartment complex. In order to start meeting people, Felix has invited their neighbor "Maestro" and his partner, Terry, over for drinks.

As he describes Maestro to Sophie, the audience gets the impression that Maestro has an extremely outgoing personality while Terry sounds far more mysterious. With an entrance that would make Paul Lynde seem sedated,  Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor's Maestro quickly fulfills every stereotype of a screaming queen. All fluttering hands, catty comments, and girlene gossip, Maestro is a preening piece of work.

Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor and Gabrielle Motarjemi
in Cocktails With Maestro

When Maestro's partner finally arrives, it turns out that Terry (Gabrielle Motarjemi) is a rather homely woman who worships Maestro and is convinced that she "married up." In addition to being active in her church, she is deeply involved in a campaign against same-sex marriage.

Although Terry obviously adores her husband's flamboyant personality, she's totally clueless about the big swishing elephant in the center of the room. After the initial shock wears off and Sophie can no longer put up with Terry's homophobia, Felix's wife rolls out the heavy artillery by asking "Don't you know that your husband is gay?"

Beautifully staged, with another one of Rodney "Rhoda" Taylor's over-the-top characterizations, Mr. Frank's script contains some wonderful zingers. It also captures a shock of recognition that has been missing from the stage for far too long.

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Marin Theatre Company is currently staging Topdog/Underdog, an intimate play by Suzan-Lori Parks in a production blessed with searing performances by Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin as two brothers for whom much of life has been a cruel joke.

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in Topdog/Underdog
Photo by: David Allen

Born into a severely dysfunctional marriage, their father sarcastically named his sons Lincoln and Booth. Upon abandoning her children to run off with a lover, their mother handed Booth a woman's stocking and told him it contained $500 to be used only in an emergency (Booth never examined the contents of the stocking to see if the money was real). Upon deserting his sons several years later (when Lincoln was 16 and Booth 11), their father left Lincoln with a similar gift.

Following a successful run hustling gullible marks as the dealer in a game of Three Card Monte, Lincoln managed to let go of the game's addictive allure. Since then, he's been working in an arcade at a "real job," which even pays benefits. The bitter irony is that this job requires him to dress up in whiteface as Abraham Lincoln and get shot several times a day.

Unfortunately, the owner of the arcade has been shopping around for a robotic version of Abraham Lincoln which could be a cost-efficient replacement for the former card hustler. Lately, Lincoln (who has broken up with his wife) has been sleeping in the easy chair in Booth's rented room (despite his eagerness to be cool, the younger brother has no couch upon which a guest could "surf").

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in
Topdog/Underdog (Photo by: David Allen)

Of the two men, Booth is by far the more gullible. A proficient shoplifter, he would like nothing more than to team up with Lincoln as two con men working the streets and hustling people at Three Card Monte. With an impressive stash of porno magazines under his bed, his personality keeps shifting from that of a strutting young stud to an immature man-boy who is hungry for approval (Booth is eagerly looking forward to a date with a woman named Grace). In 1994, Parks wrote:
"Are Black people only blue? As African-Americans we have a history, a future, and a daily reality in which a confrontation with a White ruling class is a central feature. This makes life difficult. This reality often traps us in a singular mode of expression. There is no such thing as THE Black Experience. There are many experiences of being Black which are included under the rubric (just think of all the different kinds of African peoples). As there is no single "Black Experience," there is no single "Black Aesthetic." There is no one way to write or think or feel or dream or interpret or be interpreted. As African-Americans we should recognize this insidious essentialism for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being. We should endeavor to show the world and ourselves our beautiful and powerfully infinite variety.

As a Black person writing for theatre, what is theatre good for? What can theatre do for us? There are many ways of defining Blackness and there are many ways of presenting Blackness onstage. For the Black writer, are there dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues? We can 'tell it like it is;' 'tell it as it was;' 'tell it as it could be.' In my plays, I do all three. I write plays because I love Black people. The writing is rich because we are not an impoverished people, but a wealthy people fallen on hard times."

Meticulously directed by Timothy Douglas, MTC's production does a beautiful job of showcasing each character's soliloquies and punctuating them with the sing-song rhythms of a dealer's hustle. While both actors shine throughout the play, there is a leaner, hungrier look in Biko Eisen-Martin's portrayal of Booth that, as it reveals his mental instability, can easily charm or frighten an audience. Bowman Wright's performance brings to mind an older dog who still has a few moves left, but is not as edgy or energetic has the more impulsive young pup beside him.

Bowman Wright and Biko Eisen-Martin in Topdog/Underdog
Photo by: David Allen

Topdog/Underdog is a powerful evening of theatre in which the love and loyalty of two brothers is shattered when their dreams and delusions of grandeur evaporate into thin air. MTC's production continues through October 28 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Variations on a Theme

The next time you go out for brunch with friends, scan the section of the menu devoted to omelets and scrambles.  If you go to an Italian restaurant for dinner, examine the list of available pasta dishes. If you're ordering a burrito at a taqueria or a crepe at a creperie, check out the various menu options.

What you're looking at are variations on a theme. Whether the basic ingredient is eggs, pasta, or a flour tortilla, the way the menu item is prepared, stuffed, garnished, and plated can create a world of difference. As the old saying goes: "Variety is the spice of life."

The same holds true in the arts. Pick up a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Elgar's Enigma Variations, or Holst's The Planets. Notice anything? They're all related to a common theme, whether it be musical or astronomical.

During Rosina's Act II lesson scene in The Barber of Seville, many a soprano has substituted a florid coloratura showpiece in place of the Rossini's original music. In the following clip taken from a 1976 Live from Lincoln Center telecast of the New York City Opera's production, Beverly Sills has fun with variations on "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

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A great deal of the creative process is spent chasing after a dream. An artist might struggle to bring a concept to fruition; a playwright might struggle to make a scene come alive. In 33 Variations, which is currently receiving its regional premiere down at TheatreWorks, many characters are obsessed with a missing link in their work. The action in Moisés Kaufman's play bounces back and forth in time. During scenes set in Vienna in 1819 and 1823 the audience encounters the following historical characters:
  • Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan), a mediocre composer who is trying to make a living as a music publisher. Diabelli has approached 50 of Vienna's top composers, asking them to write a variation on a simple waltz he himself has composed. Although his waltz is hardly inspired, a book of variations by famous composers could become a best seller.
  • Ludwig von Beethoven (Howard Swain), one of the greatest composers in history whose deafness had led to increasingly erratic behavior. Although Beethoven initially declined to take Diabelli up on his offer, for some seemingly unfathomable reason he has become obsessed with the challenge of writing variations on Diabelli's waltz. Beethoven is often so obsessed that he prioritizes the Diabelli Variations over finishing his great Missa Solemnis (which received its world premiere on May 7, 1824).
  • Anton Schindler (Jackson Davis), Beethoven's close friend, protective secretary, and biographer.
Anton Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan) and Beethoven
(Howard Swain) in 33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

In the contemporary scenes, the audience encounters the following fictional characters:
  • Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds), a New York-based musicologist who has been obsessed with Beethoven's 33 Diabelli Variations. After years of lecturing about the great composer, she has finally received clearance to visit the Beethoven House in Bonn (where she can hopefully solve a musicological mystery by going through its archives). A determined researcher who is hardly the touchy-feely type, Katherine is on a tightly-focused cultural mission while in deep denial about her precarious medical condition.
  • Clara (Jennifer LeBlanc), Katherine's daughter who has never had an easy time communicating with her coldly intellectual mother. Having floated from one career to another, Clara has recently designed costumes for a stage production and is now toying with the idea of becoming a set designer.
  • Mike (Chad Deverman), the triage nurse at the clinic where Katherine has received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).  Mike is the kind of awkward straight guy who wouldn't hesitate to hit on a pretty young woman after he's seen her mother naked.
  • Gertrude (Marie Shell), the archivist and caretaker of the library and archives at Beethoven House. Gertrude's aunt recently died from ALS, which makes her more sympathetic to the urgency of Katherine's quest.
Jennifer LeBlanc and Chad Deverman in
33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

In the specialized theatrical zone made possible by combining time travel and magical realism with dramatic license, these characters cross paths onstage with varying degrees of success over the course of Kaufman's 33 scenes. As the playwright explains:
"Seeing Beethoven's original manuscripts was almost a religious experience. I'm a very Talmudic writer, and it reminded me of being back in yeshiva. What I loved was how intimate I felt with Beethoven's compositional process. At times, I felt I shouldn't be there because I was looking at something so personal (there are food stains indicative of what he was eating and a lot of water stains), because every so often he would pour cold water on his head... he said it was to reset his thinking.

I knew I wanted to create a play in variations form; variations about obsession and about what happens when everything else in your life is removed from your life. I thought it was just going to be a piece about Beethoven, but when I started working on it, I realized it couldn't be, it had to be something more. This is a play about obsessions and about curiosity. The only reason we're here is because 200 years ago a composer turned his gaze onto 16 bars of music. He became obsessed with these 16 bars. Is there a way in which the artistic act of turning one's gaze intently upon something creates ripples -- unperceivable to artists at times -- that touch people for generations to come? The result of Beethoven's fascination was perhaps the greatest set of variations in the history of piano music. But in addition to the effect that piece of music had, the act of looking itself is what we're exploring. To me, Beethoven's obsession with the work is echoed in Katherine's obsession with Beethoven's decision."
Beethoven (Howard Swain) and Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds)
in 33 Variations (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Robert Kelley's direction helps bring into focus the sad irony of each character's situation:
  • Diabelli, who will never have the kind of natural talent that Beethoven enjoys, will become rich from publishing Beethoven's compositions.
  • Beethoven will never have the financial skills or common sense that Diabelli has, but he will become an international hero while few people will even know who Diabelli was.
  • Schindler will always be seen in the shadow of his master (and subsequently be criticized for having destroyed some of Beethoven's journals).
  • Katherine's mind will remain intact as she slowly loses control of her body throughout her dogged pursuit to understand a composer whose body remained highly functional as he lost one of the most valuable parts of his mind: his hearing.
  • Clara, who has never paid much attention to classical music (which was always her mother's thing) will find herself falling in love with Diabelli's waltz.
  • Mike, whose awkwardness in expressing himself offers a sharp contrast to his strong nursing skills, will help Katherine to finally see and appreciate her daughter.
  • Gertrude, who has always been such a strict adherent to rules, will break the law in order to help Katherine reach her goal before she succumbs to ALS.
Perhaps the saddest irony is that, like talent, certain pieces of art demand to speak for themselves in the strangest ways. Despite Moisés Kaufman's life-long passion for Beethoven, 33 Variations is nowhere as compelling as listening to Beethoven's music. As is so often the case, the master's music is far more vital and thrilling than any musicological dissertation (whether written or staged) could ever hope to be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hail To The Chief

The President of the United States is, in many people's minds, the most powerful man on earth. Not only does he dominate the news media, plenty of biographies have been written about American Presidents as well as plays and films.

While fictional Presidents (DaveThe American PresidentThe West Wing, etc.,) have created memorable roles for such talented actors as Martin Sheen,  Kevin KlineMorgan Freeman, Peter Sellers, Fredric March, Michael Douglas, James Cromwell, and John Goodman, many an actor has had a chance to impersonate an actual President of the United States.
So far, only Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with zombies and vampires. But how have American Presidents been portrayed on the musical stage? The musical 1776 (which showcased the drama behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence) included future Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

San Francisco Playhouse will move into its new home this weekend with Jon Tracy directing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Abraham Lincoln made a surprising appearance in the musical number "Happy Birthday, Abie, Baby" in Hair.

In the following clip from the 1982 film of AnnieAileen Quinn sings "Tomorrow" to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Edward Herrmann).

In Call Me MadamEthel Merman played a Washington hostess (inspired by Perle Mesta) who was often receiving phone calls from President Harry S. Truman. Irving Berlin's bubbly score included a song named "They Like Ike."

In this clip from the 1987 opera by John AdamsNixon in ChinaChou En-Lai (Sanford Sylvan) and Richard Nixon (James Maddalena) trade toasts at a banquet in Beijing.

There are, of course, two musicals which very few Americans have seen. In 1962, Irving Berlin's last show, Mr. President, opened with Robert Ryan in the title role and Nanette Fabray as his First Lady. Anita Gillette landed the role of their daughter who sang "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous."

On January 17, 2010, Hope! Das Obama Musical premiered in Frankfurt and became the first musical written about a sitting President.

America's Presidents took center stage last weekend in Bay area productions of two musical theatre classics. One show (featuring a fictional President) debuted on Broadway during the Great Depression. The other (which focuses on depressed and delusional historical figures who have had a severe impact on American Presidents) debuted off Broadway in 1990.

In a peculiar way, each show can be seen through a peculiar lens of the audience's political awareness. One wears its comedy in bold primary colors, the other is darkly cynical and foreboding. One is a classic example of a "tired businessman's musical"; the other demonstrates the sobering power of musical theatre to shock and educate its audience.

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With music and lyrics by George & Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing opened at the Music Box Theater on December 26, 1931, becoming the first Broadway musical to satirize Presidential politics as well as the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a plot that has bachelor candidate John P. Wintergreen running on a "Love" platform, a political party that stages a beauty contest for the woman who will become his wife on the day he is sworn in as President, and a sweet young girl who wins Wintergreen's heart because she can bake delicious corn muffins (without even using corn), the show's book by Morris Ryskind and George S. Kaufman was clearly designed to lift American spirits that had been dampened by the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Vice Presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom
(David Fleishhacker) is an unwelcome presence  in
Of Thee I Sing (Photo by: David Allen)

Eight decades after the show's premiere, much of its humor seemed uncomfortably dated. While there is silliness galore (especially with regard to the bumbling Vice Presidential candidate, Alexander Throttlebottom), numerous lines that might have triggered serious blackout guffaws in 1931 fell flat on a modern audience.

It was also a bit disheartening to realize how the chirping beauties in Of Thee I Sing's chorus have evolved into the fawning contestants on shows like The Bachelor, the scheming bitches on The Real Housewives reality TV franchise, and the unwilling victims of the GOP's War on Women. Ira Gershwin's lyric about "a man who would jilt and spurn her" fell on my jaded ears as "a man who would tilt and sperm her."

Coming four years after Jerome Kern's 1927 breakthrough with Show Boat, there were also some structural changes. As Ira Gershwin explained: "There are no verse-and-chorus songs; there is a sort of recitative running along, and lots of finales and finalettos."  I even heard hints of George Gershwin's 1928 masterpiece, An American In Paris.

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon has revived Of Thee I Sing to coincide with the opening of their 20th anniversary season and their year-long tribute to the Gershwin brothers. While "Love Is Sweeping The Country," "Who Cares?' and the title song have stood the test of time, other musical numbers in this show have faded far into oblivion. I did, however, get a kick out of Ira Gershwin's lyrics for "Some Girls Can Bake A Pie" and "The Illegitimate Daughter."

Brittany Danielle, Ashley Jarrett, and Noel Anthony
in Of Thee I Sing (Photo by: David Allen)

With Greg MacKellan directing (using attractive sets and costumes designed by Hector Zavala), the strongest performance came from Noel Anthony as John P. Wintergreen. David Fleishhacker was an appropriately addled Alexander Throttlebottom and Michael Rhone offered a portrayal of the South's Senator Robert E. Lyons that seemed like a precursor to Senator Lindsey GrahamAshley Jarrett was appealing as Mary Turner with Brittany Danielle providing comic relief as the scheming Diana Devereaux

By the end of the first act, I found myself surprisingly conflicted about this revival. I was deeply imprresed with the results of musical director Michael Anthony Schuler's work with the cast as well as his accompaniment on the piano. Combined with MacKellan's stage direction and Jayne Zaban's choreography, the overall production values were higher than usual for 42nd Street Moon. And yet, I found myself feeling increasingly bored and impatient.

It's possible that much of the fault lies with Ryskind and Kaufman's book. In any case, the following clip offers some stills of the original cast with Jane Froman and Sonny Schuyler singing excerpts from Of Thee I Sing.

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Shortly before I saw my first performance of Assassins in 1993 at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, the strangest thing happened. The radio ads for the show featured a hurdy-gurdy style song that was nowhere to be found on the original cast recording. It was fascinating and infuriating, the kind of musical snippet you can't get off of your mind. It wasn't until almost 20 years later, while watching Stephen Sondheim discuss this piece of music, I learned that it was a variation on our country's official Presidential anthem, Hail to the Chief!

In recent years I've had the immense pleasure of attending two excellent Bay area productions of Assassins: one at San Francisco State University in 2004 and one by Ray of Light Theatre in 2011. Each viewing was accompanied by the curious sensation that the current political climate colors the audience's reaction to the performance.

How so? In 1993, the newly-elected Bill Clinton was seen as a likely target for some deranged lone gunman; in 2011, the threat seemed equally worrisome for Barack Obama.

The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a new production of Assassins directed by Susannah Martin with costumes by Christine Crook and a phenomenal unit set designed by the ever-resourceful Nina Ball (whose revolving stage eerily resembles a revolver's multi-chambered cylinder).

The cast of Assassins in front of Nina Ball's unit set
Photo by: Pak Han

Each time I see this show, I come away from the performance with a deeper appreciation of the narrative structure librettist John Weidman created from an idea by John Gilbert, Jr. Although the size of the cast may vary (some productions include a chorus to fill out smaller roles while others have actors double up on roles), the dramatic payoff never lessens.

A major boost to the dramatic tension in this new production comes from the formidable sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker, which ranges from ordinary highway noises during Samuel Byck's monologue to gunshots which trigger ominous vibrations under the seats at key moments in the script. In her director's note, Susannah Martin writes:
"Assassins is, by no means, a historical document. It's a piece of theatre. Why is it relevant right now? The election. The amount of anger in the country. The very, very sad slew of violent, gun-related tragedies that have occurred in the United States in just the past few months. The incredible helplessness and powerlessness that people feel right now vis-a-vis the government. The strong desire to do something about it and yet the strange inability to fully commit and take action in a way that feels definitive or that feels like it changes anything.
Because of the nature of our founding as a country (it was a revolution, after all), the tenets listed in our founding documents, and our long history of manifesting destiny, we are brought up as Americans with certain expectations built on promises made to us -- both literal promises in those founding documents and more amorphous, implied promises. I know we live in a time where many don't see the American Dream as possible anymore. But we want to believe.  We want it to be possible."
Ryan Drummond as Samuel Byck in Assassins
Photo by: Pak Han
"With the assassins, those implied promises go beyond the idea of 'If you work hard, you will succeed and thus, be happy.'  The assassins live in place of 'I am owed happiness, I am owed success, and I have the right to criticize, to judge if those things are not given to me. I have the right to take action and claim my happiness.'  For some of these assassins, their frustration comes from a very acute place of poverty, desperation, and neglect. It comes from a place of being backed into a corner and expressing their helplessness, their powerlessness through one, great 'historic' act. It's the only way they see out of the trap they find themselves in."
While Assassins requires a tightly-knit ensemble, some performances stand out more than others. I was especially impressed with the work of Galen Murphy-Hoffman as John Wilkes Booth, Ryan Drummond as Samuel Byck, Aleph Ayin as Giuseppe Zangara, and Kevin Singer (doubling as the banjo-strumming Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald).

Galen Murphy-Hoffman as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins
Photo by: Pak Han

Having recently enjoyed Ady Abbot's monologue entitled "Whatever Happened to Sara Jane?" at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival, it was fascinating to revisit the scenes written by Weidman for Sara Jane Moore (Rebecca Castelli) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Cody Metzger). Others in the cast included Jeff Garrett as the Proprietor, Steven Hess as the hyperreligious Charles Giteau, Dan Saski as Leon Czolgosz, and Danny Cozart as John Hinckley.

Members of the Assassins ensemblePhoto by: Pak Han

Performances of Assassins continue through October 28 at the Ashby Stage. Click here to order tickets and remember: all you have to do is move your little finger.