Monday, November 26, 2007

Lingering Deaths

It's just not fair. One enters the theater with one's hopes raised that, somehow, somewhere, sometime after the curtain goes up, something wonderful will happen. That's what the crap-shoot called live theater is all about: taking the risk that a curious mixture of words, lighting, music, drama, scenery and acting can produce the rare spark of theatrical electricity that will ignite a performance and transform it into a meaningful event.

If only it happened more often.

These days, one has to wade through nearly 100 performances (ranging from the mediocre to those which are downright appalling) in order to earn the privilege of sampling the sublime. It's a task which discourages many critics and makes them appear burnt-out and cynical to a public which only attends the prescribed "hits." Alas, sitting through the other 100 turkeys is less invigorating than spending five hours in the Detroit airport!

I stress this because the ability to retain one's honesty and objectivity means being able to accurately report what one sees and hears. Frequently, the people working on a show become so emotionally invested in its success that it becomes impossible for them to stand back and examine what is actually happening on the stage. All too often, the variety of excuses proffered to compensate for the fact that the final product is painfully substandard, does nothing to make it any better.


A perfect example of this would be the San Francisco Opera's recent revival of Puccini's Madama Butterfly which, carefully placed in saran wrap and microwaved by stage director Matthew Farruggio, croaked its way across the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before dying an unjust and extremely tedious death. Even John Fiore's animated conducting could do little to lift the stage proceedings out of their total lethargy.

It's bad enough to get nuked in Nagasaki. But should an audience have to pay full fare for this? No. This Butterfly was the kind of throw-away production planned by Terry McEwen (and inherited by Lotfi Mansouri) which has the word "amortization" written all over it. It is an inexpensive revival of a much- loved opera mounted by a house conductor, house director and cast with as many young artists as possible so that it can sell plenty of tickets at the box office while keeping expenses down to a minimum.

The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. The last time I experienced Nikki Li Hartliep's Cio-Cio-San, I felt like the only non-believer in a crowd of worshippers who had adoringly followed the soprano's progress since she first entered the Merola program. Like Gertrude Stein, I left the theater convinced that "there was no there there." Little has happened to change my opinion: Hartliep's geisha girl remains as mechanical and monotonous as they come; hampered, no doubt, by Farruggio's uninspired blocking (which is a far cry from stage direction). The fact that Hartliep's vocal and dramatic efforts could have been so totally overwhelmed by Robynne Redmon's nurturing and subtly-sung Suzuki makes one seriously question the soprano's strengths as an artist.

Thankfully, the men in this revival fared better. Vyacheslav Polozov was an appealingly macho Pinkerton while Gaetan Laperriere made an impressive debut as the American consul, Sharpless. Strong cameos came from Philip Skinner's Bonze, LeRoy Villaneuva's Prince Yamadori, and Doug Perry's Goro.


If San Francisco's Madama Butterfly suffered from the curse of artistic and financial stinginess, one of the most expensive musicals ever to open on Broadway suffers from too much of everything all at once. Budgeted and conceived as a major extravaganza, Meet Me In St. Louis is a lavish rip-off of the movie (starring Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien) which has all the physical trappings of an old-fashioned Broadway musical but, alas, the coldheartedness of an industrial show. None of the soul which elevated so many shows into the realm of art is to be found on the stage of the Gershwin Theater.

The problems are obvious: Meet Me In St. Louis is frighteningly overproduced, overdirected and overly energetic. Its plastic-romantic principals (Donna Kane, Julie Lambert, Jason Workman and Peter Reardon) have little if any charisma. The mature folk (old hands like Betty Garrett, Milo O'Shea and George Hearn) are little more than atmospheric props and the youngest member of the cast, Courtney Peldon, is dangerously precocious as Tootie. Louis Burke's direction and Joan Brickhill's choreography, which seem to have raided a theatrical database for every guaranteed stage effect ever used, give a sense of inventory rather than inspiration. Their desperate pandering to the audience they hope to attract reaches a nadir when the chorus, dressed in band uniforms, parades down the theater's aisles for a final, blood-chilling tribute to John Philip Sousa.

This calculatingly patriotic kind of artistic bankruptcy may be fine in a high school production but falls flat on its face in a more sophisticated theatrical arena. The Act II song describing how friendly the people in New York all are (circa 1903) drew mean-spirited guffaws from the audience at the preview I attended. Diabetics in the audience should be especially warned about the show's Halloween production number.

The saddest thing about Meet Me In St. Louis is how it symbolizes one of the most perverse aspects of our society: an unhealthy desire to cling to an image of the nuclear family despite the fact that that concept imploded under the weight of multiple modern realities long ago. Meet Me In St. Louis is aimed at the tourist trade that comes to New York seeking a show, like Annie, which will let their children experience a Broadway musical that measures up to the New Right's prescribed "traditional family values." Despite its lavish production values, it's also a show that could make anyone with half a brain want to puke his guts out.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 30, 1989.

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