Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Backstage Backwash

Many years ago I saw a Grade-Z murder mystery film which had a curious plot twist. The protagonist was a detective working a case who, whenever he went to sleep at night, would find himself discovering new evidence in his dreams. As he came closer and closer to solving the case, his transition between the dream and waking states became so smooth that he could barely tell whether he was awake or asleep. He would discover new pieces of evidence during his daytime job, track further clues in his dreams and leave messages for himself in both mediums. The film's resolution was an intriguing one. Just when the detective thought he was closing in on the murderer, he was shot and killed during one of his dreams. In real life, his body was discovered the next day. Ironically, the coroner ruled that the man had died in his sleep.

As someone who is, himself, a heavy dreamer, I have always been fascinated by the curious transition between real life and the dream state -- a change of environment as sharp as the razor's edge which separates the realities of what happens onstage from what happens backstage. Some of the musical theatre's most beautifully crafted moments ("Rose's Turn" in Gypsy, the puppet sequences in Carnival! and Fanny Brice's rendition of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" in Funny Girl) result from the curious mesh of real life and theatrical artifice which frequently occurs within the entertainment industry. How carefully that mesh is woven determines the strength of these dramatic triumphs. And how easily the audience adapts to the gimmick has a great deal to do with the popular success of the show.

Last month, three productions offered solid evidence that, when properly staged, such theatrical transitions are almost undefeatable and, when clumsily crafted, they can become downright embarrassing.


Without a doubt, Francesca Zambello's staging of La Cenerentola rates as one of the great operatic triumphs of 1987. Having updated Rossini's treatment of the Cinderella legend to a l930s Busby Berkeley sound stage in Hollywood, Zambello's clever concept provided an intoxicatingly delightful breath of fresh air to an otherwise uninspired weekend in St. Louis.

The strength of Zambello's staging rested in her thorough re-examination of the score; a solid piece of homework which allowed this acutely sensitive director to taking daring risks. In her production, the tutor Alidoro doubles as a Busby Berkeley-ish film director and Prince Ramiro becomes an egotistical movie musical tenor. Offscreen, Dandini is a preening matinee idol while Cinderella is transformed into a Kathryn Grayson type of Hollywood starlet. Dominating the brick wall at the rear of the stage is a lightboard with the words "Silence," "Action," "Rehearsal" and "Storm," to indicate the mode of behavior being used onstage.

This gimmick works brilliantly, allowing Zambello to circumvent the usual silliness employed in staging Rossini's operas and switch back and forth between rehearsal and action shots with uncanny deftness. The storm scene, which shows the standard devices used on a Hollywood sound stage, must rate as one of the funniest sequences I've seen on the operatic stage in years; Zambello's staging of the first act finale is nothing less than brilliant. Don Magnifico's drinking aria comes precariously close to resembling a golden shower scene between the soloist and male chorus and the opera's final moments are an absolute joy.

Her debut with Opera Theatre of St. Louis marked the first opportunity Zambello has had to offer audiences this unique interpretation of Rossini's La Cenerentola and I hope to God it will not be her last. Special credit goes to set and costume designer Neil Peter Jampolis and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski (who helped facilitate the dramatic changes between rehearsal and action modes). Joseph Rescigno's conducting helped forge the tight musical ensemble that Rossini's opera needs.

In addition to the blessings of a truly innovative staging concept and a solidly supportive orchestra, OTSL hired a group of young American singers so wonderfully on top of the musical and dramatic demands of this opera that their performances were totally triumphant. Richard Croft's Prince Ramiro was handsome to look at and delightful to hear, with exquisitely sung coloratura work. James Michael McGuire's Dandini was a narcissistic delight which offered the perfect foil to Ron Hedlund's overblown Don Magnifico.

As Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, Donna Zapola and Rhonda Jackson McAfee kept the audience in stitches throughout the evening. Doubling as Alidoro and the Busby Berkeley-ish film director, Ken Cox let the strength of his bass coloratura speak for itself. Mezzo-soprano Stella Zambalis (who sang Rosina two seasons ago in OTSL's production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville) scored a major career triumph as Cinderella. Often looking as if she had stepped out of Beach Blanket Babylon, Zambalis dazzled audiences with her trills, runs and roulades while winning their hearts with her considerable personal charm.


Due to the difficulty of finding a good theatrical baritone, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate is not produced as often as it deserves to be. This vintage musical (inspired by the backstage battles of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) pits two former lovers against each other backstage as well as onstage in a musical version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew trying out at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. Tempers flare as miffed egos, romantic jealousies, bad gambling debts and Shakespeare's immortal words keep colliding with an eerie theatrical truth. Underlying all the fun is Cole Porter's fabulous score, which includes such standards as "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So In Love Am I," "Too Darn Hot," and "Always True To You In My Fashion."

Too many years had passed since I had the opportunity to enjoy this show and so, when I arrived in London in June, I headed straight for the Old Vic Theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Kiss Me Kate had been transferred intact from its recent success at Stratford on Avon. The song which always brings down the house, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" enjoyed an extra measure of success thanks to the antics of John Bardon and Emil Wolk. Furthermore, the historical irony of having this song performed by members of the RSC allowed the two gangsters to add: "If it's serious culture you're cravin, come and see us at Stratford on Avon..."

Under Adrian Noble's superb stage direction, the RSC made some interesting changes in the look and feel of Kiss Me Kate. Liz Da Costa's costumes were a tremendous improvement over previous productions; Ron Field's choreography was decidedly more athletic. Fiona Hendley's Bianca was more of a dumb blonde than a dark sexpot and Tim Flavin's Bill seemed much leaner and more balletic than other performers who have taken on this role. Kate's final speech was staged with the heroine in street clothes rather than her Shakespearean costume, a move which added an extra touch of submissiveness and role playing to the relationship between Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi.

The bulk of the show rests on the shoulders of the couple playing the roles of Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate. Although, dramatically, Paul Jones and Nichola McAuliffe had themselves a field day, neither performer was able to fully conquer Cole Porter's score. Of the two, Ms. McAuliffe delivered her songs more effectively; Mr. Jones obviously lacked vocal strength.


The good news is that the RSC's Kiss Me Kate is bound for Broadway in 1988. The bad news? There is no bad news unless you consider the fact that the original version of Stephen Sondheim's Follies may never be seen on stage again. Performing rights have been withdrawn pending the opening of a revised edition in London's West End which, if it is a success, will be brought to Broadway. Unable to remain in London long enough to attend a preview, I stopped in Houston on the way home to catch Theatre Under the Stars' staging of the original version of Follies at Houston's new Wortham Arts Center.

As much as I love Follies, the evening (which turned out to be one of those previews where everything goes wrong) required a great deal of patience and generosity. Lighting cues kept getting botched, the sound system was in chaos and the sets, borrowed from the San Jose Civic Light Opera, were still being broken in. Licia Albanese tripped as she headed down a staircase and, at the climax of "I'm Still Here," the still-sexy, 62-year-old Patrice Munsel triumphantly threw her head back only to freeze in horror as she felt her wig fall off. I still can't figure out why director Charles Abbott chose to reverse the order of Sally's and Phyllis's Loveland fantasies -- his decision did not help matters one bit.

Despite all the evening's technical glitches, the bittersweet charms of Follies shone through. I particularly liked Juliet Prowse's elegant, leggy Phyllis, Thelma Lee's brazenly energetic Hattie Walker and John Cullum's bitter Benjamin Stone. Best of all were the quartet of Jacquey Maltby, Mark McGrath, Bob Bartley and Laurie Stephenson as young Phyllis, young Ben, young Buddy and young Sally. While Martha Lu Wetzel scored strongly as Stella Deems, Marijane Vandivier was sorely miscast as Solange La Fitte. Marilyn Maye and Harvey Evans seemed curiously off target as Sally Durant and Buddy Plummer.

"What will the future bring?" asks one of the young ghosts in Follies. After spending the summer in Pesaro, Francesco Zambello will stage the American premiere of Rossini's Bianca E Falliero in Miami in December (I'm afraid you'll have to wait quite some time before her Cenerentola resurfaces in America). Meanwhile, you can bet your bottom dollar that the London productions of Follies and Kiss Me Kate will be transferred to Broadway sometime next year. I, for one, can't wait!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 23, 1987.

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