Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Time For Singing

Ever since the Spring of 2011, when Magic Theatre presented The Lily’s Revenge (as part of a rolling world premiere with New York's HERE Arts Center, the Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans, and the National Theatre of Scotland), I have been in awe of Taylor Mac. Whether as a playwright (HIR) or performance artist, his work stands head and shoulders above the crowd for its searing strength and the phantasmagorical fearlessness of his artistic vision. As he explains on his website:
“In the eyes of those with stable occupations, actors historically are vagabonds, agitators, vain, not the brightest of breeds, and (the old standard) deceitful. We get paid to lie. And if we do it extraordinarily well -- so well that if the lie seems truer than truth -- then we’re hailed as great at what we do. Great at what we do, but not great humans to be trusted with political opinions and societal points of view.

One of the great things about the kind of career I've created for myself (with the help of many) is I get to work in a variety of different theatrical environments and with a wonderful assortment of performing artists. I've been in ensemble plays by other playwrights, acted in my own plays with actors I've cast, done the midnight show, and the midday matinee. I've worked in the circus, the strip club, the LORT, the street, museum, opera house, basement bar/sex-club, and ethical society.

I believe whole-heartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward. I try to see more theater than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms and it’s made me a better director/producer/playwright in the process. I believe that, as a theater artist, I'm not a teacher; I'm a reminder. I'm just trying to remind you of things you've dismissed, forgotten, or buried.”
Taylor Mac onstage in San Francisco (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

An ambitious artist who is willing to push the creative envelope as far as possible in order to shake up the status quo, Taylor doesn't hesitate to tell audiences that "Perfection is for assholes." In addition to being an engaging storyteller, a compelling singer, and a defiantly delicious drag artist, his work achieves a great deal of consciousness raising with regard to gay, trans, and other gender-related issues.

While he may see himself as an American jester -- and delight in performing extensive research -- his latest project (entitled A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) is almost as ambitious an undertaking as Richard Wagner's famous tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It also allows him to demonstrate what has been sorely missing from today's schools. As the lead-in to her recent interview with Teller (the popular magician and former Latin teacher), Jessica Lahey wrote:
"Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter. Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks."
Taylor Mac enchanting the audience at the Curran Theatre
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Back when I was an undergraduate student at Brooklyn College, I took a course in music appreciation in which a bored professor played a recording of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida and said "Well, that's about all you need to know about opera." Had I taken him at his word, I would have missed out on one of the greatest passions of my life. Thankfully, I had already started attending live opera performances and knew enough to ignore the professor's ennui.

By contrast, as I sat blindfolded on the stage of San Francisco's Curran Theatre during one of Taylor's recent performances (which he models after a Radical Faeries realist ritual), I felt like I was sitting around a campfire at which a spiffily-dressed shaman was acting as my spirit guide during a trance-like exploration of our country's history of popular music. By the time the audience was instructed to remove their blindfolds, stand up, and join our hostess in singing Patti Smith's "People Have The Power," Taylor Mac had edged past Maria Callas's portrayal of Bellini's Druid priestess (Norma) and was well on his way to becoming a 21st-century oracle capable of dispensing wisdom in the most visually glorious, audience immersing, and socially conscious style imaginable. In short, he was doing exactly what Teller prescribed:
"The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds. If you don’t have both astonishment and content, you have either a technical exercise or you have a lecture. When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education."
Teller co-directing a production of The Tempest in Las Vegas
(Photo by: Anthony Mair)

If, in Now, Voyager, Charlotte Vale can say "Don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars," there's no reason why Taylor Mac can't escort his audiences to Neverland, fly them to the moon, or tease them down a radical path through American history with the subversive humor of Charles Ludlam, the childlike bravado of Peter Pan, and the musicological inquisitiveness of Leonard Bernstein. Larry Kramer may have spent 40 years writing 800 pages of presumed gay history for The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel (and hope to publish Volume 2 before he dies), but Taylor Mac is hard at work on a gigantic musical project which mines the collective wealth of material found in 240 years of songs that have been popular in America.

Outrageously costumed by Machine Dazzle's Matthew Flower and co-directed by Niegel Smith, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is markedly enhanced by the lush musical arrangements created and conducted by Matt Ray (I'm not gushing, these orchestrations are a genuine class act). Aimed at examining the music which, in its historical context, appealed to oppressed segments of American society, Taylor Mac's undertaking is structured as follows:
  • 1776-1786: Songs Popular During the American Revolution.
  • 1786-1796: Songs Popular in Recovery From Revolution.
  • 1796-1806: Songs Popular in the Pubs (which inspired the Temperance).
  • 1806-1816: Songs Popular While Escaping the Heteronormative.
  • 1816-1826: Songs Popular with the Blind.
  • 1826-1836: Songs Popular with Children (during and around Trail of Tears).

  • 1976-1986: Songs Popular in the Backroom.
  • 1986-1996: Songs Popular at the Height of the AIDS Crisis.
  • 1996-2006: Songs Popular in the Radical Lesbian Community.
  • 2006-2016: Songs Written for "A 24-Decade History."
If you thought The Lily's Revenge was a big undertaking, Taylor Mac's ultimate goal is to perform all 24 decades of music with a 24-piece orchestra over the course of 24 consecutive hours. During his marathon, the orchestra will lose one musician during each decade. In one sequence, there will be 24 dancers/strippers. For the diehards in attendance, there will also be a medical tent.

Taylor Mac singing from the mezzanine of the Curran Theatre
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

During his appearances as part of the Curran: Under Construction series, Taylor Mac performed the first two segments of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (1776-1836) for small, but enraptured audiences. Seated on the stage of one of San Francisco's oldest theatres as it undergoes a sorely-needed renovation, audience members were startled to look out into the darkened auditorium and realize that, even with the evening's star wafting through the mezzanine like a glamorous ghost, the space felt as intimate as a living room. At times, when a spotlight shone through the auditorium's chandelier, onlookers began to feel as if they were experiencing the music from within a magical kaleidoscope.

Taylor Mac performing at the Curran Theatre (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

While the music from each decade can range from songs of woe and political unrest to English ballads like "Johnny's So Long At The Fair," the overall experience is a mind-boggling exercise in deliciously wretched excess. Certain moments stand out more than others:
  • On the first night I attended, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in the audience. After singing a popular 18th-century song about how much the people hate Congress, Taylor Mac suggested Pelosi remember that song when she returns to work in the nation's capitol.
  • The second evening (which still needs a lot of work) was described as "a workshop of a workshop for a backers audition for a heteronormative jukebox Broadway musical about colonization that will go on to win an Oscar."
  • In addition to familiar bits of musical Americana like "Turkey in the Straw," the true narrative of a popular sea chanty was revealed to be about a group of sailors who were planning a rowdy trip ashore to gang rape a black slave.
  • The tale of a young Cherokee girl who was adopted by Caucasians and forced to attend a Christian school (but could not relate to something as seemingly simple as singing the Alphabet Song because she had been raised in a Native American culture which responded differently to music) was especially moving.
  • Segments that featured audience participation included ping pong balls, a game of musical chairs, blindfolded attendees trying to find each other's mouths in order to insert slices of tangerines, a forklift, exercises in flirting, and Taylor Mac demonstrating how it doesn't really matter if the volunteers he recruits from the audience as his backup singers are, in fact, tone deaf. Why not? Because he's written a song for them.
Taylor Mac onstage at the Curran Theatre (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

In between recollections of his sexual escapades while hitchhiking -- and bawdy tales about people who have no boundaries whatsoever -- Taylor uses his show's format to explain how cultural appropriation becomes a handy-dandy way of whitewashing indigenous and queer culture (especially if money is at stake for a backers' audition or a feature film). In between instructing members of his audience to cough, play dead, pretend they're rowing a boat, and join in the singing, Taylor captivates his audience by showing what can happen when "mythology meets melody."

If I had any regret, it was that the songs from 1816-1826 (which were popular with the blind and, therefore, had many in the audience blindfolded), caused the second evening to lose a bit of momentum as chairs were stacked and removed and the audience (with quite a few seniors) was asked to sit on the floor. Although he never forced anything on his audience, Taylor mischievously suggested that they treat their discomfort as a "bourgeois crisis" while reminding people that they've paid a helluva lot more for big-ticket theatre events that have delivered a helluva lot less.

Bottom line: Carpe drag diem. Whenever and wherever you have a chance to experience parts of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, seize the moment. Let Taylor Mac be your "Hostess with the Mostess" for a memorable theatrical outing and a great learning experience. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Exhume Or Not To Exhume

Whenever the anniversary of a famous author's birth or death reaches a significant milestone, critics and creative types may stop, look back, and think about a particular artist's cultural contribution. The more famous the artist, the less urgent the need to mark any major anniversary simply for the sake of history. Although this year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616), Shakespeare festivals now dot the international landscape.

Occasionally, an arts organization will try to draw attention by exhuming a rarely-performed work or presenting a festival devoted to a particular playwright (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw). Despite having the best intentions, some of the more noble attempts to showcase a minor work can fall to the mercy of what I like to call the "Dead Playwrights Society." Two Bay area productions recently rose to the challenge, with questionable results.

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When one looks at the list of major Broadway theatres, it's always interesting to know their history.
Two weeks after his death on October 2, 2005, Broadway's Virginia Theatre was renamed in honor of August Wilson, making him the first African-American playwright to have a Broadway theatre named after him. While the [George Howells] Broadhurst and Belasco Theatres on West 44th Street and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on West 49th Street are favored houses for some producers, West 52nd Street has the distinct honor of having two venues named after playwrights (the Neil Simon and August Wilson Theatres) face each other from opposite sides of the street.

During his career, Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: one for 1987's Fences and the other for 1990's The Piano Lesson. Both dramas were part of the playwright's Pittsburgh Cycle (which has also come to be known as The Century Cycle). As part of its artistic plan to perform all of the plays in The Pittsburgh, Cycle, the Marin Theatre Company recently unveiled a new production of 2003's Gem of the Ocean, a deeply problematic work that relies heavily on the use of magical realism as embodied in one particular character.  According to Wikipedia:
"The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a 'washer of souls.' She is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running. She dies in 1985, during the events of King Hedley II."
Margo Hall as Aunt Ester in August Wilson's
Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean is the first of Wilson's ten plays that reflect the lives and experiences of African Americans during each decade of the 20th century. In a speech delivered at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group National Conference, Wilson explained that:
"Growing up in my mother's house at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the response to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which could trace back to the first Africans who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resilience of the African-American spirit.  Those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life."
Margo Hall as Aunt Ester in August Wilson's
Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Gem of the Ocean received its world premiere from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on April 28, 2003 and, although the original Broadway production received five nominations for Tony Awards (including a nomination for best play), it closed after 15 previews and 72 performances. Although Wilson can write some wonderfully dramatic monologues for his characters, there is a lot of dead time in Gem of the Ocean which was not at all helped by the frequently appalling stage direction of Daniel Alexander Jones.

It's possible that some of the mannerisms used onstage during MTC's production might seem alien or confusing to contemporary audiences.Working on an abstract unit set designed by scenographer Kimberlee Koym-Murteira (with costumes by Katherine Nowacki and sound design by Sara Huddleston), Jones became a victim of his own artifice.

Namir Smallwood (Citizen Barlow), Omoze Idehenre (Black Mary)
and David Everett Moore (Eli) in Gem of the Ocean 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Wilson's play requires the audience to buy into a great deal of magical realism as Aunt Ester guides young Citizen Barlow on a journey to the mythical City of Bones. While certain scenic effects can enhance the emotional and spiritual power of Barlow's journey, many moments in this staging seemed pointlessly mannered.  Had the production featured a more naturalistic set and style, I'm sure the contrast with and transition to a sequence glowing with theatricality would have been much more effective.

In her program note, dramaturg Omi Osun Joni L. Jones writes:
“Theatrical jazz creates a collage of images, sounds, and time that allow the past, the present, and the future to provocatively co-mingle. The nonlinear, physically abstract nature of much theatrical jazz permits the spirituality of August Wilson’s work to be an everyday expression of Blackness, not ‘supernatural’ or ‘magical realism’ but Black Realism, where spiritual transformation and improvisational innovation are a way of life.

The set provides period features such as 1904 scenes of Pittsburgh juxtaposed against a liquid prism wall, all resting on a floor that suggests West African iconography. Black life stretches beyond the bounds of realism and naturalism; the sounds move through moan, free jazz, ancient, and present day African rhythms and ragtime, and Aunt Ester’s ‘long memory’ acknowledges how Black disenfranchisement in 1904 continues to play out in 2016 as she wears the anachronistic images of many (including Emmett Till, Mike Brown, Oscar Grant, and Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley Jones) patched onto her skirt. These collage-inspired design choices reflect the way African Americans have woven together lives through oppression to find beauty and joy.”
Omoze Idehenre, Margo Hall, David Everett Moore, and
Anthony Juney Smith in a scene from Gem of the Ocean
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Unfortunately, very little of that came across the footlights. The suggestion of West African iconography on the stage floor could not be seen by most people in the audience. Nor could the images of contemporary African Americans patched onto Aunt Ester's skirt. The jazz music composed by Kevin Carnes sounded, at best, incidental. As a result, what unfolded onstage resembled some of the more misguided directorial conceits (Regietheatre) that have plagued the opera world.

So let me admit to a basic prejudice: Whenever I see actors marching around a stage as if following the grid lines on a piece of graph paper, I tend to lose faith in a director's artistic concept. Omoze Idehenre (a superb artist) seemed burdened by much of the blocking for Black Mary. As Solly Two Kings, Anthony Juney Smith's Act II soliloquy felt more like a sequel to MADtv's classic sketch about the Keanu Reeves School of Acting.

Thankfully, there were some solid actors onstage doing the best they could under the circumstances. Always a dynamic presence, Tyee J. Tilghman caught fire as Caesar Wilks (Black Mary's arrogant brother turned policeman). Namir Smallwood captured much of Wilson's poetry as Citizen Barlow (the young man who breaks into Aunt Ester's house through the kitchen window hoping that she can "wash his soul"). David Everett Moore was moving as Aunt Ester's caregiver, Eli, with Patrick Kelly Jones doing commendable work as Rutherford Selig, the white peddler who is Aunt Ester's friend.

Namir Smallwood (Citizen Barlow) and Margo Hall
(Aunt Ester) in Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

One has to be thankful for the superb craft and strength underlying Margo Hall's performance as Aunt Ester. One of the Bay area's theatrical treasures, Hall brought a rare combination of dignity, grace, sarcasm, and historical weariness to the stage which, despite most of the production's questionable optics, heroically carried the evening on her sturdy shoulders.

Performances of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean continue at the Marin Theatre Company through February 13 (click here for tickets). Like many movies, this is one situation in which the trailer leaves a much better impression than the director's overall concept.

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For its first production of 2016, Theatre Rhinoceros staged a rare revival of one of Noel Coward's last plays. First produced in April 1966 in London with a cast headed by the playwright, Lilli Palmer, and Irene Worth, A Song At Twilight had its premiere as the opening play in a trilogy entitled Suite in Three Keys (the other two acts were Shadows of the Evening and Come Into The Garden, Maud). The following clip from the 1982 film adaptation starring Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr offers a delicious little reference to the San Francisco theatre scene.

In 1999, as part of the celebration marking Coward's centennial (the playwright was born on December 16, 1899), A Song At Twilight was revived in London with Corin Redgrave and his sister, Vanessa, in the leads.

Vanessa and Corin Redgrave in a scene from the 1999
London revival of Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight

One might well wonder: Why would this play appeal to a contemporary audience? Probably because its world premiere took place shortly before the LGBT rights movement erupted and started to gain momentum. Seen a half century later, A Song At Twilight offers audiences a chance to revisit the kind of repression practiced by gay men who felt it necessary to avoid any kind of scandal by entering into a loveless marriage in order to "keep up appearances." As John Fisher (the artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros who directed and stars in its revival) explains:
“It’s a centenary celebration of a kind. One hundred years ago, Noel Coward was on the verge of a fabulous breakthrough. He had established himself as an actor (in London and on tour), he would soon see his very first full-length play produced, and he was all of 17. A Song at Twilight is from the last part of his career and represents a more reflective mood. Is Sir Hugo in A Song of Twilight an autobiographical portrait? Coward said it was not. He based Hugo Latymer on Max Beerbohm and W. Somerset Maugham. But Hugo’s plight remains a clever way to bring up social issues we know were close to Coward’s heart.”
Poster art for A Song at Twilight

Fisher stars as Sir Hugo Latymer, an aging, quick-witted, narcissistic author living in a Swiss hotel with his wife, Hilde (Tamar Cohn), in a 20-year-long marriage of convenience. As the play begins, Hugo anxiously awaits a visit from his former lover (an actress he hasn't seen in several decades). Well aware that Carlotta (Sylvia Kratins) must have an ulterior motive behind her visit, Hugo becomes increasingly agitated as he tries to figure out what she might possibly want from him. Could it be money? Some kind of revenge?

Sylvia Kratins and John Fisher in a scene from
Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

As it turns out, Carlotta wants to discuss a much more delicate issue. After she and Hugo broke up, she became friends with the true love of Hugo's life -- a man who left her something very special in his will: the love letters Hugo had written to him. Much to Hugo's surprise, Carlotta has no intention of blackmailing him, nor does she disapprove of his homosexuality. She just wishes he could be honest about the fact that he's gay and was once deeply in love with her friend.

Like many closeted men, Hugo reacts with a combination of panic, denial, and a desperate need to reassert control over the situation. The role offers Fisher a chance to indulge in the kind of flamboyant behavior which allows some older men to convince themselves that no one really knows they're gay. Fisher's hungry eyes nearly devour the sight of Felix (Marvin Peterle Rocha), the hotel's handsome, tuxedoed butler.

John Fisher and Marvin Peterle Rocha in a scene from
Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

The tug of war between Hugo and Carlotta allows Coward a chance to craft some prize zingers although, by the time Hilde returns from her coffee date with an old friend, Hugo's big secret has been exposed without any loss of reputation. To further rattle his nerves, Hilde has a few surprises of her own.

John Fisher and Tamar Cohn in a scene from Noel
Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

After a half century of people living openly-gay lives, A Song At Twilight seems like a strained and slightly dusty period piece. While Tamar Cohn offers a subdued and somewhat resigned performance as Hugo's beard, Sylvia Kratins is much more determined to unmask the lie that Hugo has been living for so many years. Fisher begins the evening with an over-the-top characterization of Sir Hugo, whose behavior becomes angrier and more irrational as he feels increasingly threatened. It's easy to imagine an elderly man who inflicted a great deal of emotional and psychological pain on himself for the sake of maintaining his career and reputation.

Whether or not Coward's play is autobiographical struck me as far less important than the fact that the closet is (and always has been) a terrible place to hide from one's own true self. Performances of A Song at Twilight continue through January 31 at Z-Below (click here for tickets).

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Titans of Twentieth-Century American Music

You don't have to be Cinderella to boast about your rags-to-riches story. With American Idol now in its final season, it's amazing to examine the list of amateurs who have been showcased by reality television-format talent shows (Star Search, The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, Arabs Got Talent, Dance India Dance). Success stories like Sam Harris, Rosie O'Donnell, Adam Lambert, and Susan Boyle have go on to establish impressive careers.

Unfortunately, too many school arts programs which could introduce talented children to invaluable sources of self expression, confidence, and fulfillment have had their funding cut while television teases them with dreams of quickly rising to stardom. Thanks to reality television and You Tube, a growing number of teenagers list wealth and fame as their top career goals.

If, however, one looks at people who have enjoyed extraordinary longevity in the arts, it quickly becomes evident that it took a lot of hard work (as well as some good luck) for them to become a household name. In their senior years, many prodigious talents have found it difficult to walk away from the art form which has been a driving force in their life.

Just as joggers crave the feeling of a runner's high, many artists crave the adrenaline rush associated with performing in front of a live audience and creating new work. While it may sound like a cliché to claim that a person "lives for their art," the truth is that art can go a long way toward keeping someone motivated, alert, and feeling productive. For some artists, the ability to continue practicing their craft can help sustain them through rough times by nourishing their soul.

Money isn't always as important to some artists as life experience. Having achieved substantial wealth, some have a greater need to remain relevant, to keep active within their professional community, or to help others who have been less fortunate. Two recent productions focused on American musicians whose art and celebrity made them household names during the 20th century. Each show demonstrated how their road to success was filled with painful losses, humiliating obstacles, and remarkable personal generosity.

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Born near Belarus on May 11, 1888, Israel Isadore Beilin and his family fled to America after their Russian shtetl was burned to the ground during one of Tsar Nicholas II's brutal pogroms. After passing through Ellis Island, his family settled into a basement apartment on Cherry Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side while their father, Moishe Beilin, looked for work as a cantor.

Having dropped out of school when he was eight years old, the young immigrant earned money selling newspapers prior to his debut as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe. The aspiring singer-songwriter earned 37 cents for the rights to his first song, "Marie From Sunny Italy". Dubbed "The Yiddishe Yankee Doodle," Berlin (whose name change resulted from a typo on the sheet music for his first song) became a household name with the debut of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911.

From then on, Irving Berlin's songs became such an integral part of America's popular culture that, when asked about Berlin's place in American music, Jerome Kern replied "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music." In the following video clip, he demonstrates the trick piano with a "transposing keyboard" that he used because he only knew how to compose in one key and would often dictate the melodies and lyrics to his songs to his pianist-secretary.

Over the years, Hershey Felder has become known for the musical monologues in which he portrays such musical giants as Leonard Bernstein, Frédéric Chopin, George GershwinLudwig von Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. Have enjoyed three of these shows when they were presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I was more than delighted to experience Felder's tribute to Irving Berlin, which is being presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Unlike the other composers Felder has portrayed, Berlin had a prodigious career and a long life (he died at the age of 101). In addition to his many triumphs, he suffered some heartbreaking losses. His marriage to Dorothy Goetz ended six months after their honeymoon in Havana when she died of typhoid fever contracted in Cuba.
  • In 1925, when he met and fell in love with a rich heiress named Ellin Mackay, her Catholic father disowned her for marrying a Jew (Berlin bailed out his father-in-law after Mackay lost his fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929).
  • Although their son, Irving, died on Christmas Day in 1928, the couple's three daughters survived.
Irving Berlin singing one of his songs at the piano

Not only were Berlin's songs featured in musicals on Broadway and in Hollywood, his devotion to the United States and love for Americana were reflected in such musicals as Top Hat (1935), Follow The Fleet (1936), This Is The Army (1942), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Easter Parade (1948), Miss Liberty (1949), Call Me Madam (1950), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), and the ill-fated Mr. President (1962).

Berlin is  credited with having written approximately 1,250 songs (of which 25 reached the #1 spot on the pop charts). From "Always," "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody," and "God Bless America" to "Heat Wave," "It's A Lovely Day Today," "Puttin' on the Ritz,"  "You're Just in Love," and "White Christmas," many of Berlin's creations have earned a permanent place in the Great American Songbook.

As someone who grew up poor, Berlin made no bones about the fact that "the toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success." When Elvis Presley shot to stardom in the late 1950s (to be followed by the success of The Beatles and other rock 'n' roll groups), Berlin realized that the public had moved on from his style of music. In the following radio interview, Felder discusses his career and how he ended up creating a show about Irving Berlin.

Unlike some fast-paced touring revues (which have tried to cram as many Berlin standards into an evening aimed at a television audience), Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin examines the composer's life in depth, creating an intimate evening of Americana which is not afraid to visit some of the darker moments in Berlin's life. This is also the first show I've seen in which Felder does not perform a long piano solo from the subject composer's catalog (e.g. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue).

Working on the tasteful unit set he co-designed with director Trevor Hay, Felder has structured his show as a series of flashbacks in which a geriatric Berlin and the spirit of his younger self debate whether they should invite a group of Christmas carolers into their home to explain the circumstances which inspired the composition of "White Christmas." Enhanced by Andrew Wilder and Lawrence Siefert's projections, these flashbacks provide Felder with a solid narrative path that allows him to cover the highs of Berlin's career as well as the critical lows that inspired key songs ("Always") and the bitterness of an old man who no longer feels that his work is needed or adored.

Performances of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through February 14th (click here to order tickets). Here's some footage from the production.

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The American Conservatory Theatre rang in 2016 with a production of Terry Teachout's one-man drama entitled Satchmo At The Waldorf. Teachout's biography of the famous jazz artist (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) was published in 2009. Following its world premiere at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater on September 15, 2011, the script underwent significant revisions. A revised version (which premiered at Shakespeare & Company in August of 2012 with John Douglas Thompson as Armstrong) added Miles Davis as a character in Teachout's monologue.

John Douglas Thompson in Satchmo At The Waldorf
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

In 2012, that production was also seen at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Directed by Gordon Edelstein on a unit set designed by Lee Savage (with sound design by John Gromada), it provides an intimate portrait of a broken artist near the end of his life who, having survived a childhood rooted in poverty, a career challenged by racial discrimination, threats from gangsters, and four marriages, is humbled by fecal incontinence and the need for supplementary oxygen.

Born to a whore in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 and abandoned by his father at an early age, Armstrong spent part of his childhood working for a Jewish family (the Karnofskys), who treated him as one of their own. After being arrested at nine years of age and sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, he learned how to play by ear at the age of 11. Armstrong eventually became the leader of the facility's band.

One of the first jazz players to perform extended trumpet solos and scat singing during his gigs, Armstrong (who was a grandson of slaves) was also the first jazz musician to write his own autobiography. In February of 1949 he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

The cover of Time Magazine from February 21, 1949

While most Millennials may only know Louis Armstrong from his appearance opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! (or from comedians who used to impersonate him during their stand-up comedy acts), Teachout's play focuses on how Armstrong survived in show business by letting Joe Glaser (one of Al Capone's colleagues) be his manager. While most of the play takes place as Armstrong unwinds in his dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, there are a series of rapid character changes in which the actor onstage takes on the personas of Glaser and jazz musician Miles Davis.

Satchmo at the Waldorf primarily concentrates on the relationship between Armstrong and Glaser (the Jewish agent who was eventually forced to betray his biggest client). Throughout the performance the audience is reminded of Armstrong's generosity to other musicians, his desire to just be able to go out and play his horn, and his appreciation for the fact that his fourth wife (Lucille) always understood that his horn came first.

In the following fascinating episode of Theatre Talk, playwright Terry Teachout and actor John Douglas Thompson discuss Armstrong's life, his legacy, and the challenges of bringing Satchmo at the Waldorf to the stage.

Like Irving Berlin, Armstrong's path in life took him from poverty to international fame. Although neither man had received formal training as a musician, they shared a common goal: to give audiences what they wanted. Both men benefited from having strong managers who guided them in their careers; both watched helplessly as their careers were sidelined by the rise of rock 'n' roll.

Still, I couldn't help feeling that Teachout's script suffered from some labored moments of exposition and could probably benefit from some careful trimming. There is no doubt, however, that as long as Thompson wishes to continue portraying Louis Armstrong, he's got a winning stage vehicle at his disposal for the remainder of his career.

John Douglas Thompson in Satchmo At The Waldorf
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)

Performances of Satchmo At The Waldorf continue through February 7 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here to order tickets).

Friday, January 15, 2016

Is It Real or Is It Memory?

This has been a week of surreal insights. While struggling to wake up one morning, I learned that the best time and place to suffer a malware attack is in your dreams. Later that day, my neighbor showed me the bullet hole in her front window that resulted from some teenagers shooting 28 rounds while joyriding along a two-block stretch of 18th Street at 1:30 a.m.

As part of a New Year's resolution to start using my recumbent exercycle again, I bought myself several seasons of Family Guy DVDs and discovered, to my utter delight, that Seth MacFarlane's writing was much snarkier in the show's first season than I had remembered. Consider the laugh-out-loud moment when Brian pulls up a chair to listen to one of Peter Griffin's rambling, nonsensical alibis and says: "Bravo, Peter. You're the Spaulding Gray of crap!"

Having finally retired from the field of medical transcription, I've begun digitizing many of the pictures resting in my family's photo albums (some of which date back as far as 1919). One shot, taken in the fall of 1972 (shortly after my arrival in San Francisco), reminded me of the day I was hit with the sad truth about San Francisco's lingering culture clash in the years after hippiedom's heyday.

As I applied for work at a temp agency specializing in office jobs, I was told to "Dress conservative, act conservative, and remember: Power to the people!" It's a good thing I didn't show my employment counselor this picture!

Heading out for an evening of fun in San Francisco, Fall 1972

The recent death of David Bowie (a multi-talented, bisexual artist who had a profound impact on fashion and costume design throughout his impressive career) reminds one of the inspirational value to be found in flamboyance and performance art. As Mel Brooks would say: "If you got it, flaunt it!

David Bowie's striped bodysuit (designed by Kansai
Yamamoto for the singer's 1973 Aladdin Sane tour)

That special, over-the-top kind of dedication to one's art was wildly on display in two recently-viewed films that were made 90 years apart. One was from the heyday of the silent film era (starring one of cinema's greatest matinée idols); the other featured two internationally-famous tango dancers looking back on careers that brought them much more professional than personal satisfaction.
  • One film starred an 80-year-old woman explaining her career path to younger dancers while offering some surprising insights into whether or not a woman needs a man. 
  • The other was a swashbuckling adventure film filled with stunts and grunts.
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Whether bearing fearsomely masculine names like Captain William Kidd, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts, and Jean Lafitte or gaining notoriety as fearless women defying traditional gender roles (Ching Shih, Charlotte de Berry, Anne Bonny, Mary Read), historical pirates and buccaneers have inspired numerous narratives describing the fictional exploits of Billy Bones, The Black Corsair, Captain Blood, Captain Jack Sparrow, The Crimson Pirate, and Gertrude "Gunpower Gertie" Stubbs. From the 1879 premiere of Gilbert & Sullivan's beloved comic opera entitled The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty to Peter Pan's rowdy adventures in Neverland (where he defeated Captain Hook and a group of comically ineffectual miscreants), pirates have held a steadfast grip on the public's imagination.

From such popular pirate-themed films as The Sea Hawk (1940), Long John Silver (1954), and Yellowbeard (1983) to the infamous Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, it should surprise no one that the popularity of pirate costumes and pirate customs inspired the creation of International Talk Like a Pirate Day in 1995. And, in all honesty, who could resist a pirate comedy sketch like this one?

These days, few people spend their time wondering what pirate-themed movies were like back when no one could be heard shouting words like "Avast" "Matey" and "Aaargh!"

Poster art for The Black Pirate

In December, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival launched its special event entitled A Day of Silents with a screening of 1926's The Black Pirate, starring Douglas Fairbanks as a nobleman intent on avenging his father's death by disguising himself as a pirate. As Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance wrote in his program note:
“Fairbanks is resplendent as the bold buccaneer and buoyed by a production brimming with rip-roaring adventure and spiced with exceptional stunts and swordplay, including the celebrated ‘sliding down the sails’ sequence, arguably the most famous set piece of the entire Fairbanks treasure chest.” 

In a city whose annual calendar is filled with all kinds of film festivals, it's rare to encounter a credit claiming that a film is being "co-presented by the California Film Institute and the 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store." But that was part of the charm of the event. Directed by Albert Parker and shot in Two-Color Technicolor, The Black Pirate includes many stereotypical portrayals of pirates as crude, disfigured illiterates who are all too willing to let the mysterious Black Pirate show them what can be accomplished with brains.

Whether swinging through the air on a rope or brandishing a sword, the athletic Fairbanks cuts a powerful figure onscreen without any need for steroids or CGI enhancements to bolster his image. His romantic scenes with Billie Dove's Princess Isobel are corny and coy, yet exquisitely cinematic.

Parker made good use of supporting actors Anders Randolf as the Pirate Captain, Sam De Grasse as the Pirate Lieutenant, Donald Crisp as MacTavish, and Charles Stevens (one of Geronimo's grandchildren) as the Powder Man. However, there was never any doubt that the entire film (which packs a tremendous amount of action into 94 minutes) was carefully tailored as a showcase for the acting and athletic skills of Douglas Fairbanks.

Following a brief introduction by Tracey Goessel (the author of The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks), the screening was given a rousing accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. Here's the trailer:

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A fascinating documentary screened at the 2016 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival is German Kral's poignant Our Last Tango, which looks back on the careers of internationally renowned tango stars María Nieves Rego (81) and Juan Carlos Copes (84), who met in Buenos Aires when they were 14 and 17 years old. During the course of a professional partnership that lasted for nearly 50 years they starred in 1985's Tango Argentino on Broadway.

A younger dancer portrays Maria Nieves
in a scene from Our Last Tango

While their intense passions for each other ran a deep and stormy course over the years they performed together in public, their personal feelings were always overshadowed by their passion for the tango itself. Although Juan was vain klutz when they first met, he projected the kind of masculine charm that made women swoon. Less sure of herself (but with better musical instincts), Maria quickly sensed the potential to gain a lifestyle for herself that her older sister could not envision.

Dancers from Buenos Aires rehearsing in Our Last Tango

There were problems, of course.
  • As the two dancers spent more and more time together, Maria found herself becoming jealous of her partner's roving eye (Juan eventually left her for a much younger woman with whom he fathered two children).
  • Although Juan and María were the first dancers to take the tango out of the clubs and perform it in theatres around the world, as rock 'n' roll continued to gain popularity, Argentina's highly mannered dance of passion began to fade from the spotlight.
  • Now in her early 80s, Maria is alone, occasionally bitter, but proud to have carved out a life and identity of her own.

As they head into their final years (Juan still teaches tango to younger dancers), they get to discuss the highs and lows of their personal and professional lives within a curious cinematic framework. Maria is acting as a consultant to a group of young dancers and choreographers specializing in tango who are trying to recreate the "Copes" style that Juan created and made famous.

A rehearsal scene from Our Last Tango

As she discusses her career with younger women, Maria explains why (especially for a dancer) there are prime years for bearing children, stressing that, in the long run, raising a family is more important than a career. Having fallen in and out of love with Juan, she is adamant that a woman should treat a man as a disposable item who can be used, abandoned, and replaced with another.

A performance scene from Our Last Tango

Kral slyly mixes archival footage of Juan and Maria in their prime with choreographed rehearsals and performances by the young dancers (some of whom are impersonating Juan and Maria) and interviews with the film's aging protagonists. Underlying it all is a great score filled with tango music. Here's the trailer: