Thursday, December 25, 2014

Fancy Footwork

It's hard to believe that that, among its many historical landmarks, 2014 celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In its infancy, the all-male ballet troupe sent shock waves through the dance world. For years, audiences flocked to the Trocks because its dancers and choreographers did such wonderful send-ups of the art form's most sacred "traditions."

Then something strange started to happen. In addition to mocking ballet's classics and contemporary dance pieces, audiences began to realize that a lot of hard work and discipline went into performing for the Trocks. In some cases, the pointe technique exhibited by some of the company's male dancers was stronger than that of many ballerinas!

Growing up in Havana, my friend Omar began his training at the Cuban National Ballet. He loves to recite  the story of how one afternoon, after class was over, the boys in his class donned pointe shoes and were clowning around when one of their teachers came back into the room.

After winning first prize in the Varna International Ballet Competition when he was in his late teens, Omar received a scholarship to study at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and subsequently joined the Mariinsky Ballet. Later in his career, he performed as a guest soloist with many other companies. Another friend, who used to dance with the Smuin Ballet, recently posted this stunning studio portrait on his Facebook page.

Studio portrait of Noe Serrano

Having always been fat, I've never failed to marvel at what dancers, acrobats, and contortionists can do with their bodies. Although I was amazed to hear strains of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in an act presented by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, I'm smart enough not to try these tricks at home.

In addition to attending hula shows presented by Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, the sinuous art of male belly dancing has also been a grand source of fascination.

If there is one dance genre that never fails to astound me, it's a glorious display of tap dancing. While Ann Miller brought a unique kind of personality to her dance routines, this famous clip from 1943's Stormy Weather demonstrates the sheer athleticism of the Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard) at the top of their game.

Like many baby boomers, my first exposure to flamenco dancing came via television in the form of José Greco's appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. While the emphasis was always on watching how fast Greco's feet moved, there was never any awareness of the music or dance vocabulary involved in flamenco (if I'm not mistaken, I may have once seen the José Greco Dance Company perform at the New York City Center).

A magnificent new film by Carlos Saura entitled Flamenco, Flamenco radically changes that vision. Anyone who has had the privilege of watching Saura's Iberia (2005) and Fados (2007) understands that this gifted filmmaker has found a way to harness the tricks contained in his cinematic toolbox in service of capturing and enhancing the dance vocabulary and musical soul of Portuguese and Spanish cultures.

Working closely with his Director of Photography (Vittorio Storaro) and Musical Director (Isidro Muñoz), Saura has crafted Flamenco, Flamenco into a cinematic experience that may seem like a concert but lets the viewer feel as if he is visiting a community of tribal musicians and dancers. As he explains:
"The first job was to look for artists who would star in the film. I obviously do not believe I am so much an expert (or a fool) as to take on this responsibility and important decision without the help of a magnificent adviser, Isidro Muñoz (Manolo Sanlúcar’s brother). We both agree that there is a new and incredibly powerful style of flamenco by young talents who are trying to make it in our country and abroad. They have so much to offer, both in orthodox flamenco and in fusion flamenco with other music styles with which they are experimenting. We also believe that the reality of this art cannot be conveyed without some of the great masters we are so lucky to have in Spain. So our first mission was to start ‘placing’ the different artists we already know in the history of flamenco in the different areas (Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar, José Mercé). We talked with each one of them personally, listened to their suggestions, and then suggested alternatives that they might not have decided to try yet, but which could prove interesting to them."

Unlike dance films which follow a fictional narrative (1977's The Turning Point, 2003's The Company, 2010's Black Swan, 2013's Five Dances); are inspired by a dancer's unique history (2007's Water Flowing Together, 2009's Mao's Last Dancer and Breath Made Visible, 2013's Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq); or document a particular dance phenomenon (2007's Planet B-Boy, 2008's Every Little Step, 2009's Dzi Croquettes, 2011's First Position), Flamenco, Flamenco has no narrative path. As the filmmaker explains:
"The problem is that if we include anything else but the beauty of this music and dancing in front of the cameras, we will betray the pureness of this art! I suggested to Isidro that we could maintain two narrative elements that were different from the usual ones, that would support the performances and enable us to communicate with the audience in a subliminal way while the show unfolds. The first one, a life journey, goes through the entire life cycle of a man through music. In order to achieve this, we used the different flamenco styles creatively. It begins with birth (flamenco lullaby), childhood (influences: MoorishAndalusian, Pakistani music, blending and enriching), adolescence (the most solid and lively styles), adulthood (solemn singing), and ‘death’ (the deep area, pure sentiment). It finishes off with rebirth based on the proposals for the future by the young interpreters. The great masters (Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar) accompany the new talents in this journey, presenting or ‘giving an alternative' with ongoing creativity that keeps the fire of future alive."
"The second element (light) supports the first element with a journey through the range of basic colors. Thus, birth is surrounded by white tones from the strong afternoon light; childhood is lit up with yellow tones of the low sun with long shadows and the moments of life out on the street. Adolescence brings us to the hours of sunset (soft orange and blue tones), lights and hours of life, of gatherings, in the patios. We gradually move to adulthood, where we find deep blue, indigo and violet. The ‘death’ area (understood not as the actual act of dying, but as a serious space of meditation which cannot be disturbed) is basically black and white, with touches of green which symbolize hope. This green takes us to rebirth, to the area of the spirit, splashed with emerald tones, pale blue, and the range of orange tones which almost turn red. We finish with a reddish-orange sunset."
Flamenco, Flamenco is best enjoyed by sitting back and letting the camera take you to dream-like places as the music washes over you. An extremely rich musical and visual treat, this is the kind of documentary that demands to be savored rather than analyzed. Here's the trailer:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Community Affairs

End of year wrap-ups and critics' annual lists of the top 10 events in their field aren't really my thing. Yet it gives me great satisfaction to note small accomplishments which would probably seem insignificant to most other people.

Mind you, these tiny milestones are not the kind of events most people would put on their bucket lists. Some might wish to go skydiving on their 75th birthday or travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, Others might yearn to participate in an intensely intimate and sensual threeway or go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Here's Inga Swenson (who played Lizzie Curry in the original Broadway cast of 110 in the Shade) singing about the happiness that can be found in "Simple Little Things."

When one attends a great deal of theatre and opera (and watches numerous independent films being screened at film festivals), one's curiosity is often focused on what's new, what's innovative, and what's coming down the pike. Some of us, however, have certain kinds of unfinished business in the back of our minds.

While those traveling on London's Underground have grown accustomed to recorded warnings to "Mind The Gap," some of us like to use our spare time to fill in the gaps in our cultural landscape. Two Bay area productions (each intimately focused on the course of human events in a particular community) allowed me to do so in December.

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Up until this month, the only venue in which I'd seen performances of Avenue Q was San Francisco's 2,203-seat Orpheum Theatre. Not known for its intimacy, the Orpheum frequently hosts national tours of Broadway shows. At both of the performances I attended, the sound design helped immensely to provide a foundation for the jokes in Jeff Whitty's book and the music and lyrics by Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx.

Teresa Attridge, Christopher Morrell, Paige Mayes, and
Hayley Nystrom in a scene from Avenue Q (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

In the following hour-long clip, you can watch the New York cast of Avenue Q (ten years into the show's run) discuss the challenges of auditioning, attending "Puppet Camp," understudying various roles, and learning how to "feel the audience." Many questions about what actually transpires onstage during a performance are answered in the session (which was taped at the New York offices of Google) while revealing some juicy tidbits about puppet design and construction, how a female puppeteer learns which motions will best inform the audience that Trekkie Monster is masturbating, and what it's like to simulate sex between puppets.

Although I missed last season's production of Avenue Q by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in the 131-seat Decker Theatre, I looked forward to seeing the show this month because I was eager to see how it plays in a small venue. Using Kuo-Hao Lo's unit set and Wes Crain's costumes (with puppet direction by Allison Daniel), Jeff Whitty's snarky script lost none of its wit, even if rude puppets have become the norm rather than the deliciously vulgar shock that Avenue Q offered to theatregoers in its earliest days.

Stephanie Temple (Kate Monster) and Teresa Attridge
(Christmas Eve) in Avenue Q (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

When performers are in such close range of the audience, small details which may be missed by those who are seeing the show for the first time can become glaringly apparent to others. I was surprised to see how a small theatre can expose a production's weaknesses rather than showcasing its strengths.

What struck me most was how weak the show's puppeteers were at syncing their voices and body language with their puppets. Although most of the cast from the 2013 production was returning for a repeat engagement, the evening's most appealing work came from Teresa Attridge (whose performance as Christmas Eve was pure theatrical dynamite).

Under Dennis Lickteig's stage direction (with musical direction by Ben Prince and choreography by Rory Davis), the cast featured Zac Schuman as Brian and Paige Mayes as Gary Coleman. The show's puppeteers were Will Giammona as Princeton/Rod, Christopher Morrell as Nicky/Trekkie Monster, Stephanie Temple as Kate/Lucy, and Hayley Nystrom as Mrs. Thistletwat/"Second Hand."

While songs like "It Sucks To Be Me,"  "If You Were Gay," "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," "The Internet Is For Porn," "There's a Fine, Fine Line," and "Schadenfreude" retain their caustic bite, the show's staying power is surprisingly reinforced by the growing inequality in people's incomes and the sorry fact that, ten years after Avenue Q's Broadway debut, it is just as hard for a newly-graduated English major to get a job.

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It's hard to believe that, in the course of 50+ years of avid theatregoing, I had never gotten around to seeing a stage production of Our Town. Why not? For a good part of my life I was intensely involved in covering the growing regional opera scene in the United States. On numerous other occasions, bad timing and geographic inconvenience made it impossible for me to catch notable productions of Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece.

Born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, Wilder spent part of his childhood living in Yantai, China with his family (his father was a diplomat for the United States). Upon his return to America in 1912, he attended middle school in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915 (a period noted for many Americans' loss of innocence that was bracketed by the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 and the fatal torpedo attack on the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915).

A decade later,  Gertrude Stein introduced Wilder to Samuel Steward (also known to gay readers as Phil Andros). The two men are alleged to have subsequently enjoyed a brief affair in Zurich. Although Wilder never married, one can sense his outsider's view of family life in 1931's The Long Christmas Dinner (in which nine decades of a family's history unravel around their annual Christmas dinners) and the role of the stage manager/narrator in Our Town.

In the following two clips, Gregory Boyd (artistic director of Houston's famous Alley Theatre) discusses what makes both the playwright and his play such important reference points in the history of the American theatre.

The gaping hole in my cultural landscape was recently filled by the Shotgun Players, whose wondrous production of Our Town takes one's breath away with its beauty, theatrical craft, earnestness, and simplicity. But, as director Susannah Martin stresses, as one crows about Our Town's simplicity, it's easy to overlook the strength of Wilder's script.

Working on Nina Ball's skeletal set (gently enhanced by Heather Basarab's exquisite lighting, Christine Crook's costumes, and Theodore J. H. Hulsker marvelous sound design), Ms. Martin has staged Wilder's play with an ensemble of gifted local actors whose skill at communicating with an audience (while seeming to underplay their roles) may well be one of this production's greatest assets.

Shotgun's production is also strengthened by the intimacy of the 100-seat Ashby Stage as a venue and Ms. Martin's ability to have various characters located among the audience (or running up and down the stairs that bracket the auditorium's main seating area).

Molly Noble and Tim Kniffin as Mrs. Gibbs and her husband, Doc
Gibbs in Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

With Madeline H. D. Brown appearing as an emotionally neutral Stage Manager, Wilder's play follows the maturation of two families in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The lives of Doc Gibbs (Tim Kniffin); his wife (Molly Noble); their daughter, Rebecca (Karen Offereins), and their son, George (Joshua Schell) become intimately intertwined with those of  Mr. Webb (Don Wood), his wife (Michelle Talgarow), their son, Wally (Eli Wirtschafter) and their daughter, Emily (El Beh).

El Beh as Emily Webb in Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Other members of the ensemble included Sam Jackson as Mrs. Soames, Christine Macomber as Professor Willard, Wiley Naman Strasser as Howie Newsome, Valerie Fachman as Constable Warren, and Christopher Ward White as Simon Stimson.

Michelle Talgarow as Mrs. Webb in Our Town
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs) 

While there are many moments in Wilder's play where the plainspoken beauty of his language (combined with the simplicity of life in the early years of the 20th century) can trick audiences into thinking that they're examining the bare bones of life without any of the complications foisted on us by today's technology, the revelatory third act makes one realize that the time we spend on earth might only be a prelude to the blessed peace that follows. Without a doubt, Thornton Wilder's drama will haunt many an audience long after you they have left the theatre. This is also a play which will be appreciated far more deeply by people who have lived longer lives.

Madelnie H.D. Brown as the Stage Manager in
Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs) 

Performances of the Shotgun Players production of Our Town continue at the Ashby Stage through January 25 (click here to order tickets). It's a magnificent experience.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

So Long, Dearie!

It's that time of year again (relax, I'm not talking about Christmas sales or the winter solstice). I'm talking about the time of year when bloggers and journalists start publishing their annual "Top 10" lists and politicians who have been in front of the public for many years must step down because they've decided to retire or have been voted out of office.

One could suggest that Santa Claus knows who's been naughty (Michele Bachmann) and nice (Henry Waxman, Carl Levin). Politics also bade farewell to Marion BarryJane ByrneJim JeffordsJames BradyAriel Sharon, and Joan Mondale,

With regard to popular entertainers, a very different phenomenon comes to our attention. Throughout the year, many beloved public figures have died or stepped down from their familiar roles:

Death, however, is not the only way to make an exit. Some people not only retire from one phase of their life, but go on to second marriages, second careers and, in some cases, attempt to have a second childhood. Some actors are driven to keep working until their last breath.

David Burns (who played Horace Vandergelder opposite Carol Channing in the original Broadway cast of Hello, Dolly!) died during an out-of-town tryout performance of 70, Girls, 70 in Philadelphia. Channing, who recently appeared here with Tommy Tune at the age of 93, has always confessed that she wants to die "with my boots on."

On rare occasions, one sees a popular entertainer decide to leave while still on a high note. Greta Garbo craved privacy; Beverly Sills wound down her singing career while preparing to become General Director of the New York City Opera.

Last Saturday night, Bay area fans had a chance to say a fond farewell to an entertainer who has increasingly captured their hearts over the past two decades. One of the original members of the Kinsey Sicks, Irwin Keller decided to leave Winnie's dress, glasses, clarinet, and big hair behind and embark on a new phase of his life.

Irwin Keller with his alter ego, Winnie

Keller (who writes a blog called Itzik's Well) wrote a long and extremely poignant piece entitled Reflections of a Retiring Drag Queen which describes his history as a gay activist, drag entertainer, rabbi, and gay father. It's a wonderful read that is well worth your time. His final San Francisco performance with the Kinsey Sicks took place at the Castro Theatre as part of the group's annual holiday show, Oy Vey In A Manger.

This was hardly an event for tears and sadness. The beloved "Dragapella" quartet consisting of Winnie (Keller), Rachel (Ben Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat) and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) performed many of their familiar numbers, including "I Had A Little Facial," "O Come Ye Unfaithful," "Soylent Night," "God Rest Ye Femmy Lesbians," and "It's Crystal Time in the City.

Keller charmed the audience with his old standards ("Papirossen," "Tranny Boy") while Schatz scored strongly with "Where The Goys Are," "Jews Better Watch Out," and "Worry!"

Spencer Brown's eternally clueless Trampolina was as endearing as ever with her renditions of "Oh! Hoey Night" and "Plastic Jesus." While Trixie made hay with "Satan Baby," the quartet brought down the house (as usual) with their complaints about only being served frozen food at the Donner Party ("I had a ball!").

Nathan Marken and Irwin Keller reviewing Winnie's music

Unlike many a diva's farewell tour, Keller and his colleagues had found and groomed a replacement for Keller as Winnie. After thanking his fans and introducing Nathan Marken (who appeared in identical drag in one of the theatre's aisles), Keller was asked to take a seat onstage as the new Kinsey Sicks serenaded him with Ben Schatz's latest musical parody "The Wind Beneath My Wig."

Irwin Keller and Nathan Marken as Winnie

The evening (which marked one of the most graceful and loving acts of passing the torch I've seen in show business) reminded me of the theme song which Carol Burnett used as her signature throughout her television career. So, from all of us, with all our hearts, to all of Irwin/Winnie: Thanks for the memories.

Monday, December 15, 2014

And Then Along Came Elf

The holiday season is filled with entertainment traditions. From performances of Handel's Messiah and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker to stagings of A Christmas Carol and The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, both nonprofit and for-profit impresarios are determined to capture their share of audiences looking for family-friendly entertainment (which has led to such popular spinoffs as the Sing-Along Messiah and Dance-Along Nutcracker).

Egged on by popular films like 1946's It's A Wonderful Life (which inspired Joe Landry's 1997 stage adaptation entitled It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play) and 1947's Miracle on 34th Street (which was the basis for Meredith Willson's dismal 1963 musical adaptation entitled Here's Love), those who lack an insatiable appetite for Christmas sales, Christmas carols, and the infernal War on Christmas can easily be guilted into feeling the Christmas imperative.

A surprising subset of Broadway musicals features songs about Christmas even if their plots do not revolve around the December holiday. From 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping ("Be A Santa") and 1963's She Loves Me ("Twelve Days To Christmas") to the holiday office party in 1968's Promises, Promises ('Turkey Lurkey Time"), audiences are urged to get in the spirit if they damned well know what's good for them. Consider this popular song from Jerry Herman's 1966 hit musical, Mame.

Just as the phenomena of pop-up restaurants and gourmet food trucks have gained popularity in recent years, the holiday season has proven to be fertile ground for special events and limited runs. From Lisa Geduldig's annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy to performances of Gian-Carlo Menotti's beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 operatic adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, there are tickets to be sold and money to be made.

With so many movies having been adapted for the musical stage in recent decades (The Lion King, Rocky the Musical, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Shrek The Musical, Finding Neverland, Legally Blonde, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Color Purple), it should come as no surprise that producers have seen a potential herd of cash cows in seasonal limited engagements of musicals built around Christmas themes.

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Following engagements in Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Manhattan, Kansas; Austin, Texas; and Riverside, California; one of this year's bus-and-truck tours of Elf: The Musical arrived in San Francisco for the final leg of its journey. This was my first experience with the show and I certainly hope it won't be my last!

Eric Williams displays the itinerary for his bus-and-truck tour of Elf: The Musical

From actors on rollerblades (that allow them to simulate ice skating in Rockefeller Center) to parents trying to figure out how to respond to a message written with an Etch A Sketch, the story is filled with lots of jokes that appeal to adults and children alike. Besides, who can't appreciate the joy of embracing a newly-found big brother whose breakfast of choice is a bowl of spaghetti flavored with maple syrup?

Michael (Tyler Altomari) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in
 Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

Several visual cues work particularly well in Elf: The Musical.
  • An easily recognizable toy which every child adores (a snow globe) provides a loving plot point. 
  • Buddy the Elf's yellow and green costume has the kind of brand recognition that has been achieved by few musical comedy costumes other than the gaudy red dress that Dolly Levi wears for  the title number of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical in Act II's big scene at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.
  • The scenery includes landmarks like the Rockefeller Center skating rink and the Empire State Building.
  • Just before the final curtain, the audience gets to watch Santa Claus fly off in his sleigh.
Buddy (Eric Williams) in front of the Empire State Building in
Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

What I found particularly appealing about the show was Matthew Sklar's musical score and the way Chad Beguelin's snarky lyrics shape a great novelty song for Jovie. Add in  songs like "Christmastown," "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "A Christmas Song," "The Story of Buddy The Elf," and a hot, jazzy big band arrangement for "Nobody Cares About Santa" and you've got a show which will continue to delight audiences for years to come.

Elf: The Musical is the kind of show which easily lends itself to a variety of design approaches. I was especially impressed by the production's sets (Christine Peters) and costumes (Gregg Barnes). The opening night performance sped by thanks in large part to Sam Scalamoni's brisk stage direction and Connor Gallagher's energetic choreography.

While Ken Clement (Santa), Jerrial T. Young (a Macy's store manager), Whitney Hayes (Deb), and Joel Stigliano (Mr. Greenway) all lent strong support to the proceedings, the evening really sits on the shoulders of the actor playing Buddy (Eric Williams), who must be an indefatigable song-and-dance man capable of genuine cluelessness, unstoppable good cheer, and moments of pathos. A tall, thin, endearing elf, Williams fit the bill beautifully. He was nicely grounded by his budding romance with the bitter and disillusioned Jovie, played by Maggie Anderson (an extremely appealing ingenue who can belt with the best of them).

Jovie (Maggie Anderson) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in
Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

Much of the plot to Elf: The Musical involves Buddy's open-hearted search for his new family which includes his biological father, Walter Hobbs (Jesse Sharp), his stepmother, Emily (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), and their son, Michael (Tyler Altomari). To be able to weave that plot line together with (a) a theme about people who have given up on believing in Santa Claus, and (b) the perils of contemporary dating -- without becoming the least bit cloying -- is a tribute to the solid work by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin on the show's book. Not only is it filled with bad puns and sophisticated laugh lines, unlike many musicals, the second act of Elf: The Musical is much stronger than the first.

Three elves gather backstage with Buddy (Eric Williams)

Performances of Elf: The Musical continue through December 28 at the Curran Theatre (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Measuring One's Artistic Strength On A Peter Meter

The Peter Pan syndrome affects men of all ages.
  • Little boys gleefully spread their arms and jump off their beds, hoping they'll be able to fly. 
  • Many gay men cling to a "boy culture" in which they can make believe they are eternally young, beautiful, and desired by other men.
  • Some middle-aged men transform their midlife crisis into an excuse to act as if they're still hanging out with their fraternity brothers from college. 
  • Many senior citizens like to think that boner pills like Viagra and Cialis are contemporary versions of the Fountain of Youth
  • I remember how my father was stunned to realize that he had turned 70 (I'm closing in on that marker myself)
Dramatic portrayals of Peter Pan achieve varied levels of success. Among the popular musical versions of Peter Pan that have been screened for television audiences are the 1960 production (starring Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, and Sondra Lee).

Less familiar is the 1976 made-for-television version of Peter Pan with songs created by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse that starred Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye.

Both of these productions featured actors (and directors) who knew what to do with the flamboyant character of Captain Hook.

Although the most recent effort may have drawn the largest television audience in Peter Pan's history, it failed to win over many viewers. It didn't take long for the folks at Saturday Night Live to spoof NBC's attempt at broadcasting live musical theatre with Cecily Strong as Allison Williams and James Franco as Christopher Walken.

Seen by an estimated 9.21 million viewers, Peter Pan Live! drew these snarky comments from my friend Michael (a former ballet dancer whose razor-sharp analyses of performance techniques practically demand to be read with severely arched eyebrows).
“In the live television production of Peter Pan Thursday night, the role of Peter was played by the popular and trending Allison Williams, and the role of Captain Hook was, for some reason, played by Christopher Walken. Walken had undergone complete spinal replacement surgery only four hours prior to showtime, released from the hospital from what would have normally been a 13-month recovery period in bed and extensive daily physical rehabilitation, took a cab straight to the theatre where (absent any physical ability to move or conduct facial expression) he admirably ‘went on with the show.’ Walken made the decision to forgo all rehearsal and direction, and perform almost the entire role sitting down and in a nap. Walken was not informed that ‘tonight’ was the actual production and proceeded to ‘mark’ the entire three-hour live show speaking his lines and glancing at cue cards while checking voicemail, monitoring stocks on Android, and taking back-to-back calls from his agent and publicist. Walken mysteriously and tragically died just minutes before curtain and the brave decision was made to scotch tape open the actor’s eyes while a very slim person animated the dead Walken from behind through the entire performance and said as many of the lines as could be recalled from childhood bedtime hour.

As for Williams in the elfish, wicked, nymphy, naughty role of Pan, Williams made certain that the audience at any given point throughout the play could forget she was actually still there, actually still in the show. Okay, that was cruel. The truth is, in several interviews the following morning, Williams admitted that she ‘never really got’ that the character of Peter was a wild, untamed and emotionally torn flying spirit, but instead based her interpretation of the role on a favorite aunt employed for over 35 years as a filing clerk at a small, local publishing house. Okay, that was unfair. More than a few viewers feel certain Williams really just wanted to make sure that we always knew it was her, and not really Peter Pan onstage at all times through the performance. And I did. At all times I completely believed it was Allison Williams I was watching and not Peter Pan.”
Allison Williams and Christopher Walken in Peter Pan Live!

J. M. Barrie's 1904 play entitled Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (as well as his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy) introduced Peter Pan to the world. In recent years, a cottage industry has developed around creating prequels to Barrie's original. Next summer, Hugh Jackman will star as the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, in Pan.

In 2004, Johnny Depp and Kate Winslett scored a major triumph in Finding Neverland. A musicalized stage version of the film opened in Leicester England in September 2012, had its American premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of 2014 and is headed for the Lunt Fontanne Theatre (where it will open on Broadway in March of 2015 with Matthew Morrison in the role of J. M. Barrie).

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In recent years, one of the most successful prequels to Peter Pan has been Rick Elice's adaptation of a 2006 novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson with musical interludes by Wayne Barker. When I first saw Peter and the Starcatcher at the 1,667-seat Curran Theatre during its national tour, I was dismayed that such an intimate show was being staged in such a large theatre.

The irony is that the success of Peter and the Starcatcher began in small theatres scattered around Manhattan before the production moved uptown to Broadway's 1,069-seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Thankfully, TheatreWorks has chosen to mount Peter and the Starcatcher in the 425-seat Lucie Stern Theatre as its 2014 holiday show. The results are at once deeply gratifying, deliciously silly, and highly entertaining.

The Act II opening number from Peter and the Starcatcher
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In his program note, Artistic Director Robert Kelley (who has directed three productions of Peter Pan at TheatreWorks) writes:
"Peter and the Starcatcher astonished me on Broadway. I knew immediately that it must come to TheatreWorks. Aside from its infectious humor and exuberant theatricality, this vision of Peter's backstory overflows with insight and revelation. At its core the original lost boy still stands, but beside him is an equally intriguing creature named Molly. If not in name then certainly in spirit she is the precursor of all Wendys to come, a bright, inquisitive, independent, and open-hearted girl on the brink of womanhood, a fitting proto-feminist descendant of Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden), Jo March (Little Women), and even Emma Woodhouse of Jane Austen's eponymous novel, all of whom have graced our stage. Written for daughters as well as sons, the play is hers as well, made all the stronger as she grows up before our eyes."  
Adrienne Walters (Molly) and Tim Homsley (Boy/Peter) in a scene
from Peter and the Starcatcher (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"For me, Peter Pan had once been primarily about Peter, his joy of life, his rejection of adulthood, his triumph over evil. But now, reflected in the light of this starcatching girl, I finally understood Peter's orphan loneliness, his quest for family, and the regret of his lost chance at love.  All those threads are elements of the original play as well, woven into its subtext, as much a part of Peter as the shadow he rescues to begin Barrie's tale. Written a century apart, these two plays intertwine tonight, as do their eternal partners, Molly and Peter: a girl born to soar, a boy born to fly, both destined to wonder forever what might have been."
Tim Homsley (Boy/Peter), Patrick Kelly Jones (Black Stache), and
Adrienne Walters (Molly) headline Peter and the Starcatcher
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Part of the joy of experiencing Peter and the Starcatcher in a small theatre is being able to hear the jokes, catch each groaning string of alliteration, savor the numerous topical references that are peppered throughout the script, and cringe at some of Elice's wondrous puns. Some of this is helped by the slightly slower tempo of the TheatreWorks production and the intimacy of the auditorium. The action is further enhanced by Kelley's smart use of the Lucie Stern's elevated mini-balconies that frame the stage.

This show requires a tightly-knit ensemble that can rapidly shift characters and manage a multitude of costume changes, perform tricks of stagecraft, and hustle props while allowing the audience to warm to their individual portrayals. Whether one looks to Ron Campbell's Mrs. Bumbrake (a drag masterpiece), Suzanne Grodner's hilarious Smee, or the spirited swashbuckling and merry mugging of Patrick Kelly Jones as Black Stache, one could not find a more appealing team of clowns to push the narrative forward in Elice's prequel to Peter Pan.

Add in the performances of Will Springhorn Jr. as Slank, Darren Bridgett as Lord Leonard Aster, Jeremy Kahn as Prentiss, Cyril Jamal Cooper as Ted, and Kenny Toll as Captain Scott and the storytelling floats on a comedic cloud of craft and magic throughout the evening (Michael Gene Sullivan shines in a variety of roles ranging from the orphanage's Grempkin to a fighting prawn).

Best of all, Tim Homsley's Boy/Peter and the work of Adrienne Walters as Molly added such a tone of honesty, innocence, and awakening to the proceedings that I found myself developing a lump in my throat as the backstories for some of Barrie's famous characters started to emerge and begin to mesh with each other.

Smee (Suzanne Grodner) and Black Stache (Patrick Kelly Jones) are up
to no good in Peter and the Starcatcher  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Special credit goes to Joe Ragey (scenic design), B. Modern (costume design), and William Liberatore (musical direction), whose artistic contributions helped give this production a marvelous sense of buoyancy. Performances of Peter and the Starcatcher continue through January 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

With Eyes Firmly Fixed On Political Targets

Few people would deny that politics is highly theatrical. Whether in film (The Candidate, All The President's Men, Lincoln) or onstage (The Best Man, Frost/Nixon, All The Way), conflict is easily found and ripe for dramatization. In 1959, when Fiorello! took Broadway by storm, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick featured a delightful song entitled "Politics and Poker."

Fiorello! (which starred Tom Bosley as New York City's beloved Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia) gently mocked the corrupt dynamics of New York's Tammany Hall. Some 42 years later, Urinetown examined political corruption from a decidedly more caustic perspective. In his recent article in The New York Times entitled "Is Our Art Equal To The Challenges of Our Times?A.O. Scott wrote:
"Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth. Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes."
Melissa Hillman (the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre who writes the Bitter Gertrude blog) has taken the bull by the horns in her must-read article entitled "The Most Important Thing in Theatre You’re Not Talking About." Bay area audiences recently witnessed the world premieres of three plays (two by the talented Lauren Gunderson) which deal with these precise issues:

In November, two productions new to the Bay area took aim at the ruthlessness and vacuous vanity of American politics. One delivered in spades; the other huffed and puffed but most assuredly did not blow the house down.

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How dark and biting do you like your black comedy? How rude and in-your-face do you like your political satire? If, like me, you adore Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and enjoy seeing sacred cows blown to smithereens, you will fall head over heels in love with Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's brutal, brilliant, and hilariously horrific political cartoon entitled The Totalitarians. It's got a small cast, to be sure, but what a goofy set of manipulative and misguided characters!

Poster art for The Totalitarians

Let's start with 20-year-old Ben (Andrew Humann), an angry, paranoid would-be American revolutionary who speaks in garbled tones while delivering his diatribes from behind a ski mask. Ben is not above asking his doctor to finger fuck him (as if checking for colonic polyps) so that the government agents he imagines to be monitoring their conversation via hidden cameras will think this was a routine rectal examination. Ben's insistence on continuing the conversation later that night in a public park close to a popular cruising spot for gay men confuses his seemingly compassionate physician (who still can't bring himself to tell the young man that he is dying from a rapidly-spreading cancer).

Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) gives Ben (Andrew Humann) a rectal
examination during The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Ben's doctor (Liam Vincent) is stuck in a sexually stale marriage. His wife (a political speechwriter and campaign manager) keeps hoping to land the perfect client while gingerly trying to ignore Jeffrey's well-intentioned entreaties about having children. With Francine hell-bent on a make-it or break-it approach to achieving her career goals, Jeffrey easily falls prey to the youthful ardor of Ben's political fanaticism coupled with his patient's obvious sex appeal and precarious medical condition. Even when Ben tightly grips Jeffrey's balls in order to make him cooperate with subversive plans to take the Nebraska state government by storm, in times of great stress Jeffrey still dreams about going someplace far, far away (like, maybe, Iowa).

Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) and his wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin),
 in a scene from The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Jeffrey's wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin), is a cunning linguist who knows how to write effective speeches that include powerful political buzzwords. But she needs to find a client who can win an election and gain her the kind of national attention which would lead to work on bigger campaigns. When Francine encounters an aspiring, amoral, right-wing egomaniac who fits the bill, she is torn between being sickened by the woman's reckless ruthlessness and blazing stupidity while simultaneously being swept off her feet by her new client's overbearing personality.

Penny (Jamie Jones) shows Francine (Alexis Lezin) who's
really the boss in The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Finally, there is the candidate herself: Former roller derby queen Penelope Easter has the trigger finger and tendency toward malapropisms (“Sometimes things just come in my mouth wrong") that gave Sarah Palin her renowned gravitas; as well as the calculating, cold-hearted bloodthirstiness of Eleanor Iselin (from The Manchurian Candidate) combined with the smug stupidity of Michele Bachmann experiencing roid rage. A sexual predator who wastes no time getting Francine into bed for some "licky licky," Penny has always assumed that her husband is gay (she once told him that he's allowed to suck two cocks a month if that's what it takes to keep their marriage intact). She will loudly say whatever words Francine puts into her politically hungry hands as long as they can propel her into political office. Next to Penelope Easter, Godzilla seems like a cuddly, household pet.

Nachtrieb's play was commissioned by the National New Play Network (NNPN) through the Full Stage/USA Program at New Dramatists with a lead grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its rolling world premiere productions have allowed Penny to terrorize audiences at the Southern Rep in New Orleans and the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C. before arriving at Z Space in San Francisco (where Nachtreib is a resident playwright).

Anyone who complains that nobody is writing good roles for mature women these days needs to get acquainted with Nachtreib's Penelope Easter (who makes Gypsy Rose Lee's mother seem like a pussycat). Deliciously directed by Kenneth Prestininzi, Jamie Jones (a comic powerhouse of an actor) transforms Penny into a strident version of Ann Miller's evil twin (who wouldn't hesitate to use her big hair and bow and arrow to bring people around to her way of thinking). Her Penny has just enough "truthiness" in her heart to make her capable of doing absolutely anything -- whether that means forcing Francine to choose between her husband and her client or finding a way to make sure her opponent slits his wrists at just the right moment).

Ben (Andrew Humann0 has ways of persuading Jeffrey
(Liam Vincent) to cooperate in The Totalitarians
(Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Performances of The Totalitarians continue at Z Space Below through December 14 (click here to order tickets). Consider Nachtreib's play the perfect antidote for anyone who's sick and tired of all that Victorian era optimism from Charles Dickens! Here's the trailer:

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Kathleen Turner's new one-woman show (Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins) which is now onstage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Written by twin journalists Margaret and Allison Engel, who thought about bringing the wit and wisdom of Molly Ivins to the stage soon after the beloved liberal columnist's untimely death from breast cancer on January 31, 2007 at the age of 62, the show suffers from one huge, inescapable handicap. As the originator of her thoughts, a talented writer, and a gifted storyteller, Molly Ivins did a much better job of being Molly Ivins (in print and on television) than Kathleen Turner does onstage.

Directed by David Esbjornson, Turner's 70-minute monologue debuted at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2010 and was seen in 2012 by audiences at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Parts of the Engel sisters' effort rely on a clumsy stage gimmick. Michael Barrett Austin has a series of silent walk-ons in which he delivers messages to Ivins on the day she started out to write a piece about her father and, after much procrastination, received word that "The General" had died that day.

The strange thing about writers is that they get to take time polishing their words until they're satisfied with the rhythm and flow of their writing. Although Ivins made frequent appearances as a speaker, whenever her quick wit wasn't delivering a fresh zinger to the crowd, she could rely on some well-used lines to keep the laughter going. However, because Red Hot Patriot is a live performance (and she is not speaking into a microphone), Turner must work harder to "sell" her lines to audiences.

Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: 
The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As a result, there is a subtle change in the character's personality. Where Ivins managed to be quite sardonic in her laid-back style of delivery, Turner is a bit more aggressive. Where Ivins could gently lead readers and audiences to the brink of a puddle before letting them stumble forward and splash about, Turner's delivery makes one feel like there was a need to push people into the puddle.

When a politician's personality has been firmly imprinted on the public's mind, it's easy for viewers to recognize personal tics and weaknesses (think of how comedians like Will Ferrell and Jon Stewart used to imitate George W. Bush). It doesn't work quite the same way with writers who are not necessarily actors.

Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: 
The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through January 11, 2015 (click here to order tickets). However, thanks to the archival treasures stored on YouTube, it's possible to spend an hour with Molly Ivins and listen to her comments as she spoke to students at Tulane University on April 13, 2004. Her insights into campaign financing, the Patriot Act, the Internet, and voting rights are every bit as vital today as they were ten years ago. As the marketing experts for Coca-Cola used to claim: "It's The Real Thing."