Thursday, November 22, 2007

Elements of Style

In a climactic moment during "Rose's Turn," Gypsy Rose Lee's mother bitterly remarks that "Some people have it and make it pay; some people can't even give it away!" What Rose is describing is a formidable combination of charisma, guts, craftsmanship and style -- the four elements which can make or break a theatrical event. In recent years, many Broadway musicals and operatic productions have delivered magnificent displays of craftsmanship. Some have even had style. What has become painfully obvious, however, is the shortage of performers with charisma and the lack of directors with guts.

As a result, whenever anyone with balls leaves his or her mark on the stage, audiences become acutely aware of a creative talent who is not afraid to take risks. That person's energy is unique; his style unabashedly singular. And if he has been true to himself and his talent, that person demonstrates the kind of artistic vision which quickly and effortlessly (or so it seems) elevates his work above the norm. Think of directors like Peter Sellars, Michael Bennett, Gower Champion and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Think of composers like Jule Styne, Giuseppe Verdi, Irving Berlin and Richard Wagner. Think of choreographers like George Balanchine, Bob Fosse, Frederick Ashton and Jerome Robbins. Then, without choking on their achievements, try to understand what makes their work rise so far above the decidedly pedestrian contributions of the hacks within their professions.

An unusual opportunity to compare two intensely personal theatrical statements took place last fall in New York when the Ridiculous Theatrical Company revived Charles Ludlam's Big Hotel at the same time that Tommy Tune's Grand Hotel was opening on Broadway. Although inspired by Vicki Baum's novel, Grand Hotel, neither show proved to be a complete success. However, the artistic merit of each production and its overwhelming sense of style was undeniable.

While one staging was unbelievably tasteful and the other incredibly tasteless, the thread which united the two productions was not the fact that each show had been inspired by the same source (in many ways Baum's novel laid the groundwork for today's television soap opera format). Instead, it was the fact that each of their director/creators had been filled with a lifelong passion for the stage and all of its wonderfully mad and dramatic excesses.


After the house lights come up, one realizes that there's much less to Grand Hotel than meets the eye and ear. Tony Walton's decadently decorous two-tiered unit set (which holds the orchestra above the stage) is filled with little more than a set of chairs and some dilapidated banquettes. Santo Loquasto's period costumes never call too much attention to themselves. The score by Robert Wright & George Forrest is hardly memorable (the show's musical numbers blend into one another so easily that most lose their identity) and there is little sense of forward motion in Luther Davis's book.

Yet, even if at the end of any performance of Grand Hotel you're not too sure what you've seen and heard, there is no doubt that Tommy Tune's artistic signature is all over the production. While the show's weaknesses are fairly obvious, its staggering strengths lie in Tune's unerring craftsmanship as a choreographer, director and artistic visualizer. Like a nylon stocking, his staging of Grand Hotel has developed into the ultimate synthetic theatrical creation. It can't come apart at the seams because Tune has made it exquisitely seamless.

Grand Hotel is an extended tableau in which each dramatic segment has been so meticulously staged, lit and choreographed (while being kept subservient to the whole) that the end result is a riotously colorful tapestry woven together with near cinematic precision. Regardless of the names you see in the program, there are no stars in the cast of Grand Hotel. Every person in Tune's large ensemble is a star. While most of the audience's attention is focused on Liliane Montevecchi's aging ballerina, Grushinskaya, and her confidante, Rafaella (Karen Akers), the finest performance in the show comes from Michael Jeter as the dying Jewish bookkeeper, Kringelein, who checks into Berlin's Grand Hotel in 1928 for one look at the luxurious life. David Carroll scores strongly as the desperately broke yet charming Baron; Jane Krakowski offers a nice cameo as the typist, Flaemmchen, who hopes to get to Hollywood.

The images conjured up by a large cast with little more than a set of chairs and some theatrical magic are a direct result of Tune's genius. While I admire the wealth of stagecraft, artistic vision and choreographic style to be seen in Grand Hotel, I must confess that I left the Martin Beck Theater hungry for some solid entertainment. How very strange!


A shocking contrast to the slick vapidity of Grand Hotel could be found in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's revival of Big Hotel (one of Charles Ludlam's earliest pieces of theatrical madness). Directed by Everett Quinton with wonderfully tacky scenery by Mark Beard and even tackier costumes by Susan Young, this production may have lacked the sophisticated style of its uptown rival but was a helluva lot more fun.

As fate would have it, the cheaper ticket proved to be infinitely more rewarding. Quinton's stage direction captured Ludlam's early madness and the kind of wild, no-holds barred tastelessness which has become a trademark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. To be honest, I laughed so hard at certain bits in Big Hotel that I thought I would wet my pants.

Between Quinton's outrageous characterizations of the declining Norma Desmond and the jungle woman Mafonga ("That's Ma-fon-ga, not Ma-fon-gu!"), Sophie Maletsky's confused ballerina, Birdshitskaya, and supporting performances by two of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's handsomely-muscled "Cobra Cunt Slaves," this was indeed a night to remember. I particularly enjoyed Terence Mintern's portrayal of Chocha Caliente, James Robert Lamb's seductively transvestitic Lupe Velez, Bryan Webster's Mata Hari and H. M. Koutoukas's Svengali. Additional cameos came from Christine Weiss as Blondine Blondell, James Robert Lamb as the hunky but stupid bellhop, and Eureka as the conniving Drago Rubles.

All I can tell you is that you haven't lived until you've experienced the raw theatricality of Everett Quinton performing primitive jungle rituals in a headdress whose plastic pythons sway back and forth across a set of curls that even Medusa would crave.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 1, 1990

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