Friday, November 23, 2007

The Chase Is On

Any adventure movie worth its salt features a chase scene in which cars go bounding over hills, create havoc and the action accelerates to a rousing climax. However, maintaining the momentum of a chase in a live theatrical situation is much more difficult. Dramatic time (as it elapses on the stage) moves at a much slower pace than it does in films. Thus, whenever a chase scene is staged before a live audience, the director must aim toward a definite goal while acknowledging that a series of pratfalls will occur along the way. The timing and precision of each visual gag is of paramount importance for, if the audience is with the performers, success is guaranteed. If the dramatic equilibrium within the theatre is slightly off, disaster can occur.

Two recent productions proved how intensely one man's vision can affect the success of an evening in the theatre. In one case, the director not only missed, but mis-used a wealth of comic opportunities. In the other, a director/designer created a unique atmosphere which served to underscore the show's manic energy level.


The first Broadway show to boast music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was carefully shaped by director George Abbott as a showcase for burlesque-style comedy. Working with such great clowns as Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and David Burns, Abbott transformed Sondheim's musical into one of the funniest romps ever to hit the Great White Way. Unfortunately, ACT's recent staging of this work offered audiences a mere shadow of the show. I enjoyed Ralph Funicello's unit set and Rick Echols' wigs, but most of Albert Takazauckas' stage direction was appallingly under par.

While some of the problem may have been due to insufficient rehearsal time, the weakness of ACT's ensemble could not be denied. Forum demands extremely strong musical comedy performers and, although he worked hard at trying to please an audience, Michael McShane's Pseudolus was painfully ill-at-ease with his timing, singing and enunciation. William Patterson's Erronius missed important comic moments and Mark Daniel Cade's Hero was a professional embarrassment (the kind of performance one expects to find in a bad high school production). The strongest work of the evening came from Peter Donat's Senex, Ruth Kobart's Domina and Howard Swain's Hysterium. Alas, this was one instance wherein a grand old show was done a great injustice.


Believe it or not, that's one of the headlines touted during Act II of Where's Dick? This new pop opera by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie received its world premiere last month at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston's Hermann Park. Although Where's Dick? suffered from technical problems with the sound system on opening night (nearly 30 minutes were cut from the piece at subsequent performances) it showed phenomenal potential. Thanks to Richard Foreman's design and direction, the production boasted the imaginative stamp and manic energy one might encounter if the darker side of Stephen Sondheim were placed in Peewee Herman's Playhouse and forced to watch a videotape of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen while on serious drugs.

In its attempt to deal with such timely issues as child abuse, fake evangelists, urban violence and America's growing dependency on drugs (which are represented in the opera by pickles), Where's Dick? combines an Animal House sense of humor with the comic book level of political awareness which has resulted from eight years of Reaganism. It is also the first opera to aim directly at the audience which reads the National Enquirer and watches the Morton Downey Show.

David Gockley had to have a lot of balls to produce Where's Dick? for, in many ways, the show's bitter sarcasm is better suited to an off-Broadway venue.

The characters in this opera include Baby Snowflake (an albino gorilla symbolizing pure violence who lusts after virgin flesh), Fate Spritely (an eternal victim who carries a bridal veil in her purse -- just in case), Stump Tower (the famous midget real estate developer who has a surprisingly masochistic streak in him), Mrs. Heimlich (a suburban matron who dabbles in child abuse and shopping) and Boldface Headlines (a male soprano dressed in kabuki robes). Add in such buffoons as Reverend J. J. Newright and Sister Immacula (a takeoff on Jim & Tammy Bakker), Ma Paddle (a sadistic old bitch who runs an orphanage), and a pederastic Santa Claus who's tired of groping chicken and you'll have some idea why Foreman staged this opera in "a gymnasium for crooks."

Wallace's lively and energetic score reflects today's pop idiom while Korie's libretto contains such startling moments as a nun describing how Reverend Newright "dangled his wang in my face," or the Tarnish Brothers (Sterling & Stainless) urging the audience to "Slap your neighbor's face and get into the spirit of the show." There are plenty of bad puns -- "Half girl, half ape, I'm all bent out of shape" -- and a final chorus which insists that "There's a little Dick in all of us standing tall."

Like Nixon in China, Where's Dick? was written to be performed with microphones. And with good reason. This is an intensely difficult score to sing and a fearsome libretto to communicate to an audience. Working with conductor John DeMain, Texas Opera Theatre's ensemble deserves nothing but kudos for its hard work. I was particularly impressed by Joyce Castle's Mrs. Heimlich, Henry Stram's Junior, Karen McVoy's Fate Spritely, Cindy Benson's Ma Paddle, Daryl Henriksen's Reverend Newright and Natalie Oliver's Sister Immacula. Angelina Reaux (Baby Snowflake), Consuelo Hill (Chief Blowhard), Randy Wong (Boldface Headlines) and Wilbur Pauley's dirty old Santa Claus added to the fun.

Some people in the audience were horrified by the society mirrored in Michael Korie's libretto; others thought that Wallace & Korie's opera was too pornographic. The hard truth is that Where's Dick? is no more pornographic than the 11:00 o'clock news or the headlines one sees every day in the New York Post. My own feeling is that this extremely contemporary piece is a welcome addition to the operatic repertoire and a long overdue relief from the blandness of too many other new works. With appropriate cuts, Where's Dick? can and should become a highly provocative opera which will continue to outrage and entertain audiences for years to come. I certainly wish it a long and healthy life.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 15, 1989.

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