Thursday, August 29, 2013

Broadway Babies/Broadway Belters

As technology allows users to experience the same digital content on a variety of platforms (telephones, televisions, tablets, laptops, and desktops), it helps us to understand how a song remains vital and alive in popular culture. The archival power of YouTube allows researchers from multiple generations to view, analyze, and critique performances from yesteryear while being able to observe how different artists use their craft and humanity to color a lyric or shape an emotional catharsis.

To see how this works, let's examine a series of clips in which a variety of performers sing a particular song. One of the hits to emerge from Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies, was "Broadway Baby" (which is sung by the character of Hattie Walker, a veteran actress and former showgirl).

Born in 1896, Ethel Shutta introduced the song to audiences at the age of 74 when Follies had its New York premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre (where Shutta had appeared in her first Broadway show in 1922). Her personal history was perfectly in tune with the nostalgia of Follies. Not only had Shutta toured with her family in vaudeville, she appeared in several shows produced by the great Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and the Shuberts.

Starting at about the 3:00 mark in the following video clip, you can see Shutta performing "Broadway Baby" (which stopped the show at each performance during the show's run).

Follies has had numerous revivals in concert form as well as fully-staged productions. Here's Mimi Hines (who replaced Barbra Streisand in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl) singing "Broadway Baby" in the 2007 revival produced for the New York City Center's popular Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert series.

Sometimes a song will be performed by a famous singer who has appeared in numerous Broadway productions or who chooses to incorporate the number into her concert or cabaret act.  Here's Bernadette Peters (who took on the role of Sally Durant Plummer in the 2011 Kennedy Center production of Follies that subsequently transferred to Broadway) singing "Broadway Baby" in concert.

And finally, here is the legendary Elaine Stritch (who sang "Broadway Baby" in the 1985 staged concert performances of Follies with the New York Philharmonic) performing the number in London during a performance of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty at the Old Vic Theatre.

Two veteran Broadway performers recently appeared at Feinstein's at the Nikko. Each bears the curious distinction of having made Broadway history with the introduction of a specific musical number -- the kind of totemic song identification which open doors and follows a performer throughout her career. Curiously, both women appeared together in the 1996 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical, State Fair that starred John Davidson.

Although each woman performed a musical set that had been tailored for a previous engagement at New York's popular new cabaret venue, 54 Below, both singers received a warm and welcoming embrace from Bay area fans.

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I originally became aware of Donna McKechnie by seeing her perform in Broadway productions of 1961's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1968's The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and Promises, Promises, 1970's Company, and the 1971 revival of On The Town.  The author of Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life also toured in productions of West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Call Me Madam, Sweet Charity, State Fair, and Annie Get Your Gun.

Although McKechnie (who won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Cassie in A Chorus Line) has always been hailed as a muscular, high-energy dancer, some people forget that she's also been quite a belter. Having worked with such Broadway legends as Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon (who taught her the role of Charity Hope Valentine), she was often considered to have been Michael Bennett's muse. In the following three clips, she can be seen performing Bennett's choreography to music by three great American composers: Burt Bacharach, Stephen Sondheim, and Marvin Hamlisch.

Now 72, McKechnie brought her Same Place -- Another Time act to San Francisco, performing such classics as Where or When (Rodgers and Hart), "I Got Lost in His Arms" (Irving Berlin), "Time in a Bottle" (Jim Croce), and "At the Ballet" (A Chorus Line). Lesser known songs included Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" (from Saturday Night) and "Uptown-Downtown" (from the London production of Follies), "I Never Know When To Say When" (from 1958's Goldilocks), and "Hate/Love New York" (Portia Nelson).

Many of her selections were tied to a theme of being an "all or nothing" type of romantic, whose choices were always passionate and idealized, if not necessarily wise. I was particularly impressed with a medley of Carole Bayer Sager's poignant "You're Moving Out Today" and "Where Do You Start?" Perhaps the most touching part of the evening was her description of meeting lifelong idol, Fred Astaire (in 1996, McKechnie was awarded the Fred Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in State Fair).

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Andrea McArdle's career started off with a bang in 1977 when she replaced Kristen Vigard during rehearsals for the Broadway-bound musical, Annie. After belting out "Tomorrow" from the stage of the Alvin Theatre (where, 47 years prior, Ethel Merman had stunned Broadway during the opening night of Girl Crazy), McArdle became inextricably linked to that song. She also became the youngest performer ever to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

During her "70s and Sunny" show, she relates how, several years later, while appearing with Carol Channing and Leslie Uggams in Jerry's Girls, Channing explained how lucky McArdle was to have had a hit song that she could call her own. McArdle has since appeared in numerous Broadway shows, ranging from The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, and Les Misérables, to Annie Get Your Gun, Starlight Express and Mame.

In a career that has included working with Liberace and appearing on Welcome Back, Kotter, McArdle's voice has continued to mature without losing its power. Highlights from her nightclub act include "Being Alive" (from 1971's Company), "Wherever He Ain't" (from 1974's Mack and Mabel),"Nothing" (from 1977's A Chorus Line),"Fallin'" from 1979's They're Playing Our Song, and "Meadowlark" (from 1989's The Baker's Wife).

Poster art for Andrea McArdle's 70's and Sunny show

Accompanied on piano by Steve Marzullo, McArdle also performed a handful of popular songs from the 1970s that had a deep impact on her in her youth, including "Angry Young Men" (Billy Joel), "Rainy Days and Mornings" (The Carpenters), "I Believe in Love" (Hot Chocolate), "I Can Let Go Now" (Michael McDonald), and "Tomorrow (A Better You, A Better Me)" by The Brothers Johnson.

Having appeared as the young Judy Garland in Rainbow (NBC's 1978 made-for-television movie), McArdle sang a touching medley of "The Trolley Song" and "Over the Rainbow" for her encore.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Finding Art in Transit Arteries

Long before the word "infrastructure" entered the popular vocabulary, I was discovering its meaning in a peculiarly personal and subterranean way. As a child, one of my favorite places to stand was  next to the driver's compartment in the first car of a subway train, staring out the front window as the train hurtled through dark tunnels along tracks that led under the East River, beneath Manhattan's skyscrapers, and occasionally even rose above ground. To experience a train's journey as it climbed a long, slow incline between stations, rose out of the ground into the sunlight, or disappeared down a dark hole in the ground was a cheap and easily renewable thrill.

The mysterious beauty of a subway tunnel

In the late 1950s (after the Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellites and the Cold War became focused on a race to land a man on the moon), a ride on the New York City subway system cost only 15 cents. My best friend and I devised a brilliant scheme which, though it might seem ridiculous to adults, was sure to capture the imagination of any boy our age. Using our trusty subway maps, we spent many hours fantasizing about how we could ride the entire New York subway system for only 15 cents!
  • Of course, we had absolutely no concept of how long it would take to visit 468 stations along 209 miles of subway routes.
  • Nor did we think about when, where, or how we would be able to go to the bathroom (what's a pay toilet?).
  • We certainly hadn't given any thought to sleeping, bathing, or eating.
  • But we were full of enthusiasm for our nifty little adventure.
Our grandiose project crashed and burned the moment we learned that the ride from Howard Beach to Far Rockaway required an extra fare. The whole idea had been to ride the entire subway system for 15 cents. Now our plan was completely ruined.  Phooey!

Our fascination with a netherworld that, for many people, was out of sight and out of mind was captured in one of Jule Styne's less fortunate musicals, 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping. In the following clip, Carol Lawrence leads the cast in "Ride Through The Night."

Subways Are For Sleeping took its inspiration from a series of stories in Harper's Magazine about homeless people who slept on trains as they rode around New York City through the night. Back when I was in the throes of coming out, I remember asking a much more knowledgeable friend how I could meet other gay people.  "Just look around and see who you're attracted to," he replied.

That answer didn't offer me much help. "Have you seen who's riding the D train at 1:00 a.m.?" I asked him. Several months later, when I nervously inquired about what to expect during my draft physical, he replied "Relax, it's a romp and a frolic. Besides, you might meet someone you like!"

A wealth of art and architectural beauty can be found beneath many cities. Many travelers find themselves in awe of the geometric grandeur found in the subway stations of Moscow's Metro.

Others prefer the more contemporary forms of artistic expression on display throughout Stockholm's Metro.

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One of the oddest documentaries I've come across in quite a while is Timo Novotny's haunting video essay, Trains of Thoughts, which was screened at the 2013 DocFest in San Francisco. Backed by a wonderful musical score by the Austrian band, Sofa Surfers, Novotny travels below ground in some of the world's most famous subway systems.

In some cities, his fascination is with the public art that is visible within the subway system (whether it be the poets and buskers on the platforms of the Los Angeles Metro Rail or the palatial interior decor found in some of Moscow's subway stations).

In others, it may involve the contrast between the architectural symmetries to be found throughout every subway system and the masses of humanity from Hong Kong to Vienna that depend on mass transit every day.

In the following interview, Novotny explains why subways offer a special sociological fascination for him as a filmmaker:

As I watched Trains of Thoughts I found myself haunted by the film's visual richness (especially those segments that would appeal to someone who spent so many youthful hours riding subway trains) yet frustrated by the translations of Novotny's conversations with riders which interfered with the more interesting visuals. Watch the above clips (and the following trailer) and see for yourself:

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There's a certain kind of urban explorer who is part architect, part archaeologist, and part art historian. In some situations, the same person can be part anarchist and part thrill seeker. Sometimes the goal is to pierce the mysterious facade of a transit facility that has been removed from public access. At other times, it may be to investigate the inner workings of public infrastructure or act as a curator of the urban underworld.

Two videos examine this phenomenon using radically different documentary styles.  The first takes a highly respectful look at a Tube station along the London Underground that is no longer in active service.

The second was made from a much more rebellious perspective. Steve Duncan is the kind of urban explorer whose work sometimes redefines the term "armchair adventure." You'll be quite glad you're sitting comfortably in your home while watching Duncan deftly duck down sewers, nervously hike through subway tunnels, and climb bridges with the kind of curiosity that could kill someone with less experience.  Nimble as a goat and fearless as a cheetah, his lean athletic body and strong sense of balance frequently come in handy. On Duncan's website, he explains that:
"As an urban historian & photographer, I try to peel back the layers of a city to see what's underneath. From the tops of bridges to the depths of sewer tunnels, these explorations of the urban environment help me puzzle together the interconnected, multi-dimensional history and complexity of the great metropolises of the world."
With the help of videographer Andrew Wonder, Duncan's 27-minute short film entitled Undercity takes viewers on a tour of New York City secrets that no Gray Line bus tour could ever match. Enjoy!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Finding The Funny

Something quite amazing happened on October 15, 2004.  Comedian Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on Crossfire between co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala -- ostensibly to promote his new book -- but, as Rob Corddry (one of The Daily Show's fake correspondents) subsequently revealed, one of the reasons Stewart was a bit grouchy that day was because he had not had anything to eat.

After Stewart took his co-hosts to task by saying "You have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably," CNN decided to cancel Crossfire. Not only did its CEO, Jonathan Klein, decline to renew Carlson's contract, Klein confessed to sympathizing with Stewart's opinions.

In a brilliantly written piece of satire entitled "Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning," The Onion pretty much laid waste to CNN's management. As well it should.

Those of us who remember CNN's debut in 1980 are already wondering if Al Jazeera America will lure away audiences who have grown sick and tired of all the shouting matches between egomaniacal pundits that currently dominate cable news. Media critics are falling all over themselves trying to guess what kind of impact Al Jazeera America will have on the cable news industry. Think about it:
  • A news channel funded by the government of Qatar whose management is not concerned with viewer numbers or market share.
  • A news channel dedicated to intelligent, long-story journalism.
  • A news channel that only plans to air six minutes of commercials per hour.
  • A news channel whose acting chief executive, Ehab Al Shihabi, has promised audiences “less opinion, less yelling, and fewer celebrity sightings.”

Looking for more new paradigms? Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday's concisely-written Eight Lessons From Summer Movies should be required reading for anyone who can't figure out why box office returns are failing to match industry expectations. And, in his recent speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Kevin Spacey went out of his way to remind industry people that audiences are not stupid.

All too often one encounters bloated films and theatrical productions which began as a good idea but metastasized into a toxic mess. These disappointments might have been due to:
  • A film whose creation was steered by focus groups and committee-driven decisions suggesting it needed more explosions, more special effects, more bloodshed, or a happy ending.
  • A simple play which could have been a lean, mean, dramatic machine clocking in at 60 minutes but that got pumped up to 70, 80, or 90 minutes in order to "fatten up the experience."
  • A writer who is so in love with his creative output that he finds it impossible to edit his work, cut text, or turn off the spigot.
  • A project that is too unique or fragile to live up to the formulaic demands of the entertainment industry without imploding under its own weight.
All of this begs the question: When is enough enough?  And, conversely, what happens when a writer has too much good material for one dramatic project?

In some cases, the writer ends up self-publishing an e-book or creating an independent film. In others, he cedes artistic control to producers, directors, and other influences until too many cooks end up spoiling the broth.

Two recent low-budget productions demonstrated the trickiness of trying to wrestle a complicated story filled with complex characters into a manageable format that can hold its audience's attention while keeping to a reasonable time frame. One was written, produced, directed, and performed by one man.  The other was much more of a team effort.

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Ever since 2008, when Don Reed brought his one-man show entitled East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player to The Marsh, Bay area audiences have been eating out of the palm of his hand. A talented stand-up comedian, impressionist, writer, dancer, and actor, Reed's one-man shows describe his hilarious adventures growing up between the strict Oakland household in which his stepfather was a Jehovah's Witness and his other home in Oakland, where his daddy was a pimp with a great collection of hats. Lucky: The Irish Pimp is a short film that Reed wrote, directed and starred in:

In November 2011, Reed was performing Kipling Hotel (a monologue about his years in Los Angeles) at The Marsh during the period when his mother was dying. By the time I saw Kipling Hotel, Reed had added an extra 45 minutes of material to the show's announced running time of one hour and 40 minutes. In my review, I wrote:
"In order to include as many colorful characters and moments as possible, Reed has thrown so much into the creation of Kipling Hotel that his show is suffocating under its own weight. Long after the evening could and should have come to a reasonable conclusion, Reed was still onstage performing impressions of Sammy Davis, Jr. and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as he struggled to find an ending. If Reed could bring himself to cut the entire segment of the show about his adventures after his career started to take off, he'd have a much stronger and more clearly-focused monologue. In its current form, Kipling Hotel needs the kind of brutal cutting that is often difficult for an artist to perform when the material is about his own life. Reed can rest assured that he has plenty of material left for a third show devoted to his impressive career."
Reed recently debuted that third show at The Marsh before a devoted audience that adores him and loves his work. Although Can You Dig It? has been extended through September 8, the show (billed as "a prequel-plus") suffers from the same problem Reed faced with Kipling Hotel: the need for a director who can insist on some brutal cuts.

Don Reed (Photo by: Rick Omphroy)

Can You Dig It? takes the audience back to Oakland during the 1960s, when Reed was a compulsive blinker, flashy cars were status symbols, and the Black Panthers were new to the neighborhood. As he imitates his peers, his older brothers, and other characters from his childhood, Reed is on sure footing talking about people he loved very dearly for a long, long time. Much of his material is quite wonderful, and Reed "sells" it to the audience with the skill of someone who has told these stories over and over to great effect.

Mae West has famously been quoted as saying that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."  Alas, not always. Especially when your audience can start identifying numerous moments when a show could have ended on a high note but took a deep breath and decided to keep going.

Late in his show, Reed was again struggling to find a way to wrap things up. But this time he let slip a little piece of personal information which may be the key to solving the mystery of what ails his monologue.

If I heard him correctly, the 53-year-old comedian mentioned that his grandmother, his mother, and his two brothers are now dead, indicating that he may well be the sole surviving member of his nuclear family. That could explain how staying onstage -- telling one more story, and then another -- has turned into a way for Reed to keep their memories alive. While the catharsis may be therapeutic for him as a man, its lengthiness is weakening his show.

Don Reed (Photo by: Rick Omphroy)

Can You Dig It? -- The 60's Back Down East 14th continues at The Marsh through September 8 (click here to order tickets). Reed's show offers audiences a chance to revel in the music and dance moves of the 1960s as well as the wonder of growing up in a tug of war between the musical influences of The Beatles and James Brown, the dance influences of The Jerk and The Watusi, and the counterculturalism of the hippies and the Black Panthers.

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One of my favorite surprises at the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a Canadian comedy entitled My Awkward Sexual Adventure. Written by Jonas Chernick and directed by Sean Garrity, this film comes across like a breath of fresh air when compared to many Hollywood sex farces. Part of that may be because its protagonists are not horny teenagers, but genuinely conflicted adults struggling with real issues.
  • Jordan Abrams (Jonas Chernick) is a lean and nebbishy Jewish accountant who is as boring in bed as he is fully dressed.
  • Rachel Stern (Sarah Manninen), is Jordan's girlfriend who has finally lost patience with him. When Jordan finally proposes, Rachel confesses that she can't possibly imagine a sex life that is all Jordan, all the time.
Since Jordan had already paid for their vacation to Niagara Falls, he can't bring himself to throw away the tickets. After arriving in Toronto, where he plans to crash with his sexually compulsive friend Dandak (Vik Sahay), a series of misadventures causes Jordan to cross paths with Julia (Emily Hampshire), an attractive stripper struggling to cope with a huge amount of acquired debt.

Jordan may not know much about human psychology and/or sexuality, but he quickly sees a way to barter his accounting skills with Julia for lessons in how to talk and make love to women. As their friendship grows, it's difficult for him to avoid the overwhelming guilt he feels about leaving Rachel. But that may actually be the least of his problems.

In his director's statement, Sean Garrity writes:
"Comparing surpluses and deficits is simple when dealing with apples and apples, at the exclusion of all else. But when we start trading favors for affection, paying money for simulations of sex, or doing good deeds in the hopes of some kind of karmic return, the calculation becomes more complex. This is the thematic material that I was most interested in exploring in this story. When people interact, there is an unspoken tracking of the see-saw motion of an emotional balance sheet between them, and an attempt to make sure it remains as even as possible. In my experience, women tend to be more attuned to this than men (perhaps the result of an unfair history that has relegated them to this realm). Certainly, in this film, Julia has a deeper understanding of this balance than Jordan does. As someone who works on the fringes of the sex industry, she is adept in quantifying the satisfaction of emotional need and sexual desire, in understanding how these things are traded, and how much they can cost.

At the beginning of the film, Jordan is unaware of the value of anything that can’t be entered in accounting software. He makes a joke about “the karma bank” in an early scene, unaware of the forces he is accidentally invoking, and unaware that he will have to come to terms with them before his arc is complete. Ultimately, this is why he is the protagonist; because he has something important to discover. He isn’t having to come to terms with the accounting practices & balances that have to do with finance (those methodologies of bean counting that shift from culture to culture and era to era). But rather, he has to come to a keener understanding of those other, more universal balance sheets that determine how we deal with one another, and ultimately how we define ourselves. This, for me, is the motor at the core of My Awkward Sexual Adventure."
While there is absolutely no doubt that Jordan's ex-girlfriend, Rachel, is a selfish bitch, what sets My Awkward Sexual Adventure apart from so many other films in its genre is that the audience can't stop itself from caring about Jordan and Julia -- two deeply wounded and vulnerable adults who could actually help each other if they could only get past some of their emotional baggage.

Although the film's structure can occasionally be frustrating, it has a mature approach to sex and sensuality, as well as some great laughs. Here's one of the key scenes:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

For those lucky enough to be inside the Castro Theatre on Sunday, June 19, 1994, the final screening of the 18th Frameline LBGT Film Festival was very much a night to remember. Written and directed by Stephan Elliott (and starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert earned a foot-stomping, 20-minute ovation which rocked the Australian filmmaker's world. As he explained from the stage, this was one of the first public screenings of his spectacularly rowdy drag spectacle.

Elliott may not have been aware of why San Francisco's audience was so enthusiastic that night. As most people know, his film has an abundance of flashy costumes, gay humor, disco hits, and a solid story line. But for a community that, over the past decade, had been decimated by disease, death, and depression, Priscilla performed a very special kind of magic -- making an audience of 1,400 feel as if they had been resurrected and given a new reason to celebrate their gayness.

Among those who had been approached for the role of the transsexual Bernadette were Tony Curtis, John Cleese, and Tim Curry (Rupert Everett had, at one time been considered for the role of Tick/Mitzi). Not only did Priscilla's Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner win 1995's Academy Award for Best Costume Design, nearly two decades after the film's premiere it's amazing to note some of the changes in society.

Wade McCollum, Scott Willis, and Bryant West in  Priscilla,
Queen of the Desert: The Musical
 (Photo by: Joan Marcus)
  • Gay men are no longer ashamed to be called fathers. 
  • Same-sex unions are now recognized by the Australian government.
  • Thanks to television shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul's Drag U, drag queens are no longer scorned as the dregs of the gay community.
Bryan West as Adam/Felicia lip syncs to Verdi's "Sempre Libera"
in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

It didn't take long for the film's international success to conjure up thoughts of adapting the story into a jukebox musical format for the stage. Work on the show began in 2003 and, in 2006, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical premiered in Sydney before touring to Melbourne, New Zealand, and returning to Sydney for a return engagement. Subsequent productions have appeared in London, Toronto, New York, Milan, Rome, Trieste, Sao Paulo, Stockholm, and parts of the United Kingdom.

Because the movie of Priscilla originally included ABBA's 1975 hit song, "Mamma Mia" (which later became the name of a hugely successful jukebox musical which was subsequently made into a film starring Meryl Streep), it's interesting to compare the two shows.
  • Each revolves around the story of a single mother whose child wants to meet its biological father. 
  • Each is filled with popular disco tunes. 
  • Priscilla, however, has much more interesting costumes, stage scenery, a throbbing sense of urgency, and is performed at such a frantic pace that it leaves the cast of Mamma Mia! looking as if they're performing on Quaaludes.
  • The combination of endless, quick costume changes (combined with Ross Coleman's original highly aerobic choreography) makes the stage version of Priscilla the equivalent of a musical comedy drag triathlon for its three leads.
Bryan West as Adam/Felicia in the touring company of Priscilla,
Queen of the Desert: The Musical
 (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Part of that is because, unlike in the film, the audience never sees vast expanses of the Australian outback. Even Adam's encounter with a group of rural homophobic, gay-bashing thugs seems less traumatic because it is so obviously choreographed and because the audience knows there are more costume changes urgently waiting in the wings. The following music video (made by cast of the London production) allows for some close-ups of the show's costumes and gives a hint of how quick changes are made for the cast's exaggerated eye makeup.

If Priscilla's three leading characters are high-maintenance homosexuals, let there be no doubt that, with more than 500 costumes, 200 hats and headdresses, and 150 pairs of shoes, the stage production is very much a high-maintenance affair.

In addition to all of its rapid costume changes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical shows how far LED technology has evolved since the turn of the century. Conceived and designed by Brian Thomson, the hot-wired bus which revolves and performs all kinds of jaw-dropping special effects is part of a rapidly-changing scenic circus of lighting tricks (designed by Nick Schlieper and Jonathan Spencer) which could only be managed by computers.

From the show's opening moments as three disco Divas (Bre Jackson, Brit West, and Emily Afton) descend from the flies against an LED-version of Sydney's famous Harbour Bridge, the stage version of Priscilla takes off like a rocket, with the audience cheering like mad. Priscilla's supporting cast for the North American touring company includes Joe Hart (Bob), Chelsea Zeno (as Bob's ping-pong ball popping Filipina wife, Cynthia), Babs Rubenstein (Shirley), Christy Faber (Marion), and Shane Davis (Benji).  The incredibly muscled dancer, Taurean Everett, continues to draw the audience's attention throughout the show (he has a bit role as Jimmy the Aborigine).

With David Hyslop recreating the original direction from the New York production, the three leads worked their asses off on opening night. Bryan West scored strongly as Adam/Felicia, with Scott Willis offering a touching portrayal of the aging Bernadette. I was especially gratified to see Wade McCollum (who had made such a deep impression in the world premiere of Fly By Night at TheatreWorks) doing a spectacular job as Tick/Mitzi.

Flashing a wardrobe that makes San Francisco's long-running Beach Blanket Babylon look like a thrift shop filled with hand-me-downs, its high-voltage production, and supremely energetic cast, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical offers audiences a remarkably fulfilling evening of musical comedy. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

British Wit and Wisdom: Dry and With A Twist

In April 2010, the Library of Congress announced plans to archive every single tweet publicly posted on Twitter's social network. With nearly half a billion new tweets being generated each day, the Library of Congress can now access nearly 170 billion tweets. But do 140 characters of text comprise a work of art?

The data contained in more than 85 terabytes may be a treasure trove for those whose professional duties include data mining, but does any of it constitute some kind of genuine literary output? I have no argument with word clouds (see below) being perceived as unique pieces of art. But tweets?

Like any form of artistic expression, writing is an acquired skill -- a craft, if you will, that takes patience, practice, and ruthless discipline. Writing requires more than merely vomiting words into a document in the hope that they will somehow make sense. It requires a command of vocabulary, sentence structure, and an awareness of the inherent musicality of language.

When my eyeglass frames broke during my recent convalescence, I could no longer read words on a computer monitor. Thankfully, if I positioned myself carefully in bed, I could still manage to read a book. The novel I chose (True Enough by Stephen McCauley) had been given to me by a friend several years ago. Although I'll admit to choosing it because it weighed less than some of the other books waiting to be read, it contained a delicious surprise. graceful writing.

Graceful writing goes well beyond the structural foundation of having an identifiable beginning, middle, and end to a story. It involves solid plotting, believable dialogue, the kind of character development that allows a reader to form a visual picture of each person in his mind, and the ability to keep a reader wanting more.

In McCauley's case, the ease with which his writing delivers tons of detailed information without ever becoming oppressive (and the style that so easily allows his words to flow through one's mind so that his storytelling seems as natural as the act of breathing) was, in a most charming way, revelatory.

Cover art for Stephen McCauley's novel, True Enough

Once my post-surgical catheter was removed and I was free to explore my cultural landscape again, I was extremely fortunate. The first two fully-staged productions I attended turned out to be extremely well-written plays whose graceful writing had handsomely survived the passage of time. Although one play is more than 120 years old -- and the other nearing its 40th birthday -- both works displayed a wealth of wit and wisdom while maintaining an economy of verbiage that demonstrated a far greater command of the English language than will ever be found in a tweet.

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Born in 1854, Oscar Wilde has become so notorious for his biting wit that quotes from his plays are freely sprinkled into new works such as Chance: A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right and Being Earnest. The irony is that, because Wilde was such a remarkable playwright, these quotes become much richer when heard in their original context.

If one considers that Wilde premiered The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest within a five-year period, his output seems astonishing. The California Shakespeare Theater's new production of Lady Windermere's Fan reminds audiences that Wilde's writing skills went far beyond the witty lines for which he is often quoted. Not only is his sense of structure remarkably strong, there is almost no fat that could be trimmed from his script.

Using Annie Smart's elegant sets, director Christopher Liam Moore has managed to infuse Wilde's play with a rare level of humanity, transforming the sexual politics of Victorian England into a much deeper lesson about the dangers of being an overly romantic fool. From her very first entrance, Emily Kitchens' wide-eyed portrayal of the proud and prudish Lady Windermere sets up the 21-year-old wife and recent mother for a dangerously misguided slide toward disillusionment.

Nick Gabriel (Lord Darlington) and Emily Kitchens
(Lady Windermere) in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Whether being toyed with by the dashing Lord Darlington (Nick Gabriel), feeling horribly betrayed by her adoring husband (Aldo Billingslea), or tolerating some ridiculous lectures by the caustic Duchess of Berwick (Danny Scheie), Lady Windermere never realizes how much trouble she is in because almost everything she has been taught about love has been the counsel of vain and moralistic fools.

Her suspicion that her husband is having an affair with the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross) matched with her naive belief that Lord Darlington genuinely wants to be her friend could have tragic consequences were not the stakes much higher for Mrs. Erlynne who, as Lady Windermere's supposedly deceased biological mother, desperately wants to prevent her daughter from following in her unfortunate footsteps.

Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne) and Emily Kitchens (Lady Windermere)
in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The skill with which Wilde paints Mrs. Erlynne as a ruined woman who prides herself on having no compassion (yet is shocked to discover in a real crisis that she does, indeed, have a heart) delivers some extremely poignant moments while revealing who holds the real power in the battle of the sexes. With a group of talented local actors in supporting roles (L. Peter Callender as Mr. Dumby, James Carpenter as Lord Augustus, Dan Clegg as Cecil Graham, and Tyee Tilghmann as the Australian, Mr. Hopper), the CalShakes ensemble delivers some touching portrayals of smug, ridiculous Victorian men.

However, it is Wilde's women -- ranging from the fierceness of Mrs. Erlynne to the foolishness of Lady Agatha (Rami Margron) and the hilarious quick change work of Danny Scheie as he switches back and forth between portraying the Duchess of Berwick and the elderly Lady Jedburgh -- that dominates the stage action. Decked out in Meg Neville's lavish costumes, Stacy Ross and Emily Kitchens becoming riveting women coping with incomprehensible levels of stress. As always, Danny Scheie steals the show.

Aldo Billingslea (Lord Windermere) and Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne)
in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Lady Windermere's Fan continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through September 8 (click here to order tickets).

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently enjoying a box office hit with the pre-Broadway tryout of Harold Pinter's 1974 play, No Man's Land, featuring a quartet of superb actors. Directed by Sean Mathias, Pinter's script focuses on four men of questionable integrity:
  • Hirst (Patrick Stewart) is a renowned British poet whose acquired wealth underwrites an insatiable thirst for liquor as he heads into his senior years with an occasionally fuzzy memory and a growing sense of isolation and loneliness. As the play begins, he has invited another man back to his estate for a drink.
  • Spooner (Ian McKellen) is also a poet, although less well off than Hirst. A man who revels in his inability to be noticed in any room, Spooner is more than happy to drink at Hirst's expense. Despite his tendency to be a Peeping Tom in an area where gay men go cottaging, he claims that his interest is purely clinical and that, at this age, he's too old to really care about sex.
  • Briggs (Shuler Hensley) is Hirst's bodyguard/manservant, a hulking figure of a man who has much less to say than his younger partner.
  • Foster (Billy Crudup) is an aspiring poet who was recommended to Hirst by Briggs to fulfill the duties of an amanuensis or male secretary.
Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While No Man's Land bears many of Pinter's dramatic trademarks (gloomy silences, implied threats, the revelation of dark secrets from the past, fear of loneliness, and the kind of jockeying for position which is determined to upset the status quo), I found it surprisingly more enjoyable than other Pinter plays such as The Homecoming and The Caretaker. As I tried to figure out what secret ingredient made this work so much more palatable, I was shocked by some of the possibilities:
  • Even if Spooner seems like a crumpled old intellectual, none of the characters in this play is threatened with or terrified by poverty.
  • Whereas the characters in The Homecoming and The Caretaker seem to have become emotionally crippled by their socioeconomic status, the four men in No Man's Land are living in physical comfort.
  • With the possible exception of Briggs, all of Pinter's characters in No Man's Land have keen intellects which they have relied on in their attempts to write poetry.
Patrick Stewart is the wealthy Hirst in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the second act, it appears that Hirst and Spooner may not be strangers after all. Indeed, they may have shared the same women during their Oxford days. As Spooner starts to reveal one after another of Hirst's misdeeds, the audience witnesses an airing of old wounds and humiliations. But, considering Spooner's constant posturing -- and the large amounts of alcohol consumed by Spooner and Hirst -- can anything be taken as proof positive of past events?

Ian McKellen is Spooner in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It would be easy to approach No Man's Land as an opportunity to see two acclaimed superstars performing live in an intimate venue. But the truth is that this four-man ensemble is comprised of a quartet of top-notch actors whose acquired skills make them master craftsmen. While Ian McKellen's Spooner garners the most attention because of how the insults of old age are so fully integrated into his physical performance, there is no denying the intense physical and dramatic appeal of Billy Crudup as the alternately beguiling and threatening Foster.

By contrast, Patrick Stewart and Shuler Hensley's performances seem a bit subdued until one remembers that one of the greatest and most difficult parts of good acting is to listen and react to the other characters onstage. Working on the simple, elegant unit set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, director Sean Mathias has done a masterful job of shaping the musicality of Pinter's silences, the body language of four remarkably different men, and pacing the evening with a combination of drunken grace and black humor that is irresistible. Tickets for remaining performances are justifiably scarce.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Impossible Dreams

While it's possible that those who aspire to less enjoy life more, I have no doubt that every generation of humanity has had its ass kicked by reality. Nature, of course, is one of the biggest villains (with powers that can truly shock and awe).

The irony, of course, is that the more chances one has to get an education, the more likely one is to embrace lofty ideals which can easily be transformed into impossible dreams.  Given a choice between a society ennobled by a code of chivalry or laid low by bubonic plague, which result should be the more obvious outcome?

Can hope and charity eliminate cynicism? Or is it better to heed the wise words of The Mikado, who told his luncheon guests that “I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”

I've always been fascinated by how composers and lyricists attempt to communicate the sounds and emotions of optimism. Two American composers (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) did a spectacular job of capturing the tenuous joy of hope and affirmation in their Broadway musicals. Listen carefully to these clips of "Make Our Garden Grow" from 1956's Candide and "Our Time" from 1981's Merrily We Roll Along and you'll hear what I'm talking about.

Those who have grown up in a data-driven world that includes computer modeling can look to science (rather than astrology, witchcraft, organized religion, or political ideology) for answers to complex questions. Andrew Leonard's poignant article on (Lego Robots Ate My Son) is a must-read for parents of budding, young nerds and geeks.

In 1989, Maxis released SimCity (subsequent spinoffs have included video games like SimEarthSimFarm, and SimLife). Thanks to the growth of the video game industry, computer-generated scenarios now form a large part of the training process for complex jobs in industries like aviation and microsurgery.

Two recent productions forced audiences to examine how more primitive cultures saw their dreams collapse under the weight of steady growth and unexpected permutations of their ideals. Each poignantly demonstrated how "the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray."

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One of the more interesting movies screened at the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a documentary entitled American Commune that was produced and directed by Rena Mundo Croshere and her sister, Nadine Mundo. The two sisters were raised on The Farm, a commune established in Summertown, Tennessee that is often regarded as America's largest experiment with socialism. In their directors' statement, the filmmakers explain that:
"When we left The Farm with our mother and moved to Los Angeles, we were catapulted into another world. We had never smelled perfume, eaten meat, seen women with makeup or men without beards. We’d hardly watched TV. We were taunted for being 'hippie kids' and we responded by keeping everything about The Farm a secret, and doing everything we could to blend in. We became hip-hop listening teens who wouldn’t be caught dead in tie-dyes. The impetus for making American Commune was born out of our simple desire to understand where we came from. As we interviewed The Farm’s founders, our parents, and our childhood friends, we developed a greater respect for how hard everyone worked to realize their dream. In many ways we have become more connected to our parents’ original ideals through the process of making American Commune.

As young adults, we moved to New York City and started directing shows for MTV. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the heart of commercialism, working for the largest media empire in the world. In time, we became disenchanted with our work, our hectic city lifestyle, and started to question where we came from. We had vivid childhood memories of the commune, but no concrete knowledge about why it was started, how it worked and why it fell apart. We wanted to understand what our parents were doing in the backwoods of Tennessee and how they, along with hundreds of others, managed to create a massive alternative society out of no more than passion and an empty spot of land. After a lifetime of hiding, we are very proud and grateful that we came from The Farm. This film is our testament to that."

The Farm began with the best of intentions:
  • Led by their spiritual teacher, Stephen Gaskin, The Farm was founded in 1970 by 300 young idealists who left San Francisco to start a new life in the backwoods of Tennessee.
  • In order to help save the world from its own greed, members of the commune renounced their material possessions, took a vow of poverty, and willingly contributed their life savings to the common good.
  • Members lived in large communal households where all assets were shared, people grew their own food, delivered their babies at home, and succeeded in building a self-sufficient society. 
  • Because members of The Farm were intent on creating stable families, sleeping around and divorce were forbidden. 
  • Meat, alcohol, violence, makeup and jewelry were also forbidden. 
  • By the early 1980s, The Farm's 1,500 permanent members were living in more than 60 communal households. The Farm had its own state-certified school, farm, soy dairy, book publishing company, medical clinic and international humanitarian organization (now known as Plenty International). 
Three girls riding on a horse at The Farm

While The Farm may have provided the vision for many of today's progressive movements (organic farming, vegetarianism, natural childbirth, and solar power), its success eventually became unsustainable.
  • The Farm doubled in size, hosting up to 10,000 visitors a year.
  • Many women came to have their babies delivered for free by The Farm's midwives.
  • Intrigued by the promise of a utopian society, more and more idealists started to arrive at The Farm expecting to be taken care of (despite the fact that the commune lacked sufficient cash flow to meet everyone's basic needs).
  • The FBI (who suspected Farm members were raising marijuana) raided the commune but only found fields of ragweed and melons instead.

By 1985, The Farm had begun to buckle under the financial strain of trying to care for too many people with insufficient resources.
  • The Board of Directors ousted The Farm's spiritual leader, Stephen Gaskin, ruled that The Farm would de-collectivize, and insisted that members find paid work outside The Farm and pay dues if they wanted to remain on the commune's land. This dramatic shift in the social structure forced hundreds of families to leave The Farm in a mass exodus.
  • The Farm’s bank loans were renegotiated at a higher rate. 

Watching American Commune is a curious experience as one learns how the ideals espoused by members of The Farm were subverted by its growth and how its members struggled to assimilate into the contemporary culture they had worked so hard to avoid. Here's the trailer:

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Ever since astronauts began to orbit the earth, the one lesson they all claimed to learn from their experience is that when one views our planet from outer space, there are no political borders. According to legend, that same lesson was taught to the young King Arthur by his mentor, Merlyn the magician, who transformed the lad into a hawk so he could soar above the land and appreciate life from a bird's eye point of view.

In his magnificent photo essay in The New York Times, author/filmmaker Michael Benson uses satellite images and data gathered by NASA to show how man-made environmental pollution is taking its toll on the earth's atmosphere. It's well worth your time to read and view the videos contained in Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity

And what about King Arthur and the fabled knights of the round table? If ever a Broadway-bound musical suffered through a torturous out-of-town tryout, 1960's Camelot provided the greatest hope on paper and the biggest mess onstage.

Following the Broadway premiere on December 3, 1960, Hart and Lerner kept making revisions to the script. By the time I saw the original production of Camelot late in its run (at an October 1962 Saturday matinee during the Cuban missile crisis with a cast headed by William Squire, Kathryn Grayson, Robert Peterson, and Arthur Treacher), I couldn't imagine why people kept singing its praises.

Oliver Smith's resplendent sets and Adrian's costumes were most impressive. Fritz Loewe's score had some magical moments. But the book remained a plodding, clumsy affair.

In Terrence McNally's 1975 comedy, The Ritz, Puerto Rican spitfire, Googie Gomez, minced no words as she informed one of the bathhouse's clients "I was in a production of Camelot once -- dat show is a piece of chit!"

And yet, because of its idealism and some of its musical numbers, Lerner & Loewe's lumbering show continues to exert a strange appeal on audiences. The San Francisco Playhouse is currently presenting Camelot in a stripped-down production with reduced orchestrations and a unique change of period.

Nina Ball's revolving set provides various perspectives of Arthur's castle while Micah J. Stieglitz's video contributions add a magical touch to the scenes in which Nimue (Julia Belanoff) exerts her magical pull on Merlyn. In an effort to make Camelot more appealing to audiences aching for some fight scenes, Bill English has attempted to ratchet up the testosterone levels of Camelot's men.

Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Sir Dinadan (Rudy Guerrero)
come to blows in Camelot (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
Mordred (Paris Hunter Paul) with the knights of the round table
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

That pretty much leaves Johnny Moreno (as King Arthur) and Charles Dean (doubling as Merlyn and King Pellinore) as the only men with any intellectual prowess. Coupled with the show's reduced orchestrations (Dave Dobrusky served as music director), one became acutely aware of how much the original production of Camelot relied on its visual splendor and the score's lush orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang to charm audiences.

The key conflict in Camelot is a philosophical one: How can the pseudo-intellectual Arthur take vengeance on his wife, Guinevere (Monique Hafen) and her lover, Lancelot when they are the two people he loves the most? Whether or not Camelot's original audiences were willing or able to deal with such radical expressions of  polyamory is beside the point. It's obvious that Arthur doesn't want to inflict harm on Guinevere or Lancelot knowing that they, too, are suffering for having betrayed his love.

Monique Hafen as Guinevere (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

What struck me most about the San Francisco Playhouse's staging of Camelot was how much a stripped-down production and reduced orchestrations expose the weaknesses in the show's script. It's a very strange experience to leave any performance of a classic Broadway musical pining for the show's original orchestrations. Here's the trailer: