Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Overcoming Societal Barriers

Many of us take great pride in the social progress made since 1969's Stonewall Revolution. Thanks to the Herculean efforts of a small group of drag queens, gay men and women can now go about their lives with a sense of dignity and strong feelings of self-worth. Even when confronted with the cruel pressures of our current health crisis, few have expressed a desire to step back into the closet. Why not? Because their hard-won psychic, social and sexual freedom has become far too precious to them to think about sacrificing their souls in order to gain a false sense of security.

Although most of us have experienced the bitter consequences of homophobic prejudice in our lives, other societal pressures -- such as racial intolerance, feuding families and rigid class structures -- can be equally devastating with regard to life, love and the pursuit of happiness. The literature of the theatre often helps to remind us just how oppressive life used to be back in the days before liberation became a popular concept. In recent months, several productions in which true love conquers societal oppression have offered extremely satisfying emotional rewards.


During a recent trip to Washington, I caught a superb performance of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and discovered that, although some people might expect this intense racial drama (which premiered on Broadway in 1959) to be quite dated, it still packs an emotional wallop. The desperation of the Younger family to leave their squalid Chicago apartment, move to a house in the suburbs and change their lives -- both materially and spiritually -- reveals a wealth of confused identities which have been beaten down over the years by one shattered dream after another. The family's desperate hope and, by the end of the play, their solid determination not to allow any dreams to be delayed for the sake of someone else's comfort, poignantly address the basic human need for dignity and self-respect.

While Starletta DuPois's Ruth, Del Roy Lindo's Walter, and Kim Yancy's Beneatha were all solid characterizations, I was especially impressed by Esther Rolle's performance as the fierce matriarch of the Younger clan. Less brooding than others who have portrayed Lena Younger, Ms. Rolle demonstrated a dramatic strength rarely seen in her television work. Along with her colleagues, she brought a great sense of warmth and vitality to A Raisin in the Sun while demonstrating that Hansberry's ground-breaking drama may be much more of a classic than we give it credit for.


Speaking of the classics, one need look no further than Romeo and Juliet for an example of how true love can be thwarted by societal pressures. Considering the growing number of teenage suicides these days, it's interesting to note that Shakespeare's tragedy is now being used in the classroom as a means of examining how and why literature's star-crossed lovers received so little support from their friends.

I've always felt that Gounod's score for Romeo et Juliette is a much stronger and tighter piece of work than the composer's Faust and, in the Met's recent revival, Placido Domingo's conducting captured all of the dramatic strength and romantic lyricism inherent in the score. With Domingo on the podium and Alfredo Kraus onstage, a great deal of attention was focused on the fact that two of the world's greatest tenors were working in the same production. However, a certain amount of credit for the evening's success should also be given to Allan Glassman who, as Tybalt, sang remarkably well and continues to make an impressive transition from baritone to tenor roles. An alumnus of Western Opera Theatre, Glassman has developed a powerful, ringing top voice which will yield many a money note in the near future. Keep your eyes on him.

In this production of Romeo et Juliette, the ever-reliable Hilda Harris sang the role of Stephano while Brian Schexnayder appeared as Mercutio. Making her Met debut, Cecilia Gasdia struck me as a very pretty and pleasant Juliette. Dramatically strong and vocally quite interesting, this young Italian soprano has great potential.

As for Alfredo Kraus's Romeo, what does one say about perfection? Watching the man work -- and enjoying an opportunity to appreciate the purity of his voice, the intelligence of his style and the overwhelmingly brilliant musicianship in his singing -- is a rare artistic treat. A curious indication of the Spanish tenor's effectiveness onstage might be noted in the fact that, although he is now 60 years old, Kraus seemed to get younger and younger as the evening wore on. But I shouldn't really be surprised by such artful deception, for miracles are among this tenor's stock in trade.


Last spring, when I saw Me and My Girl in London, I had grave reservations about just how well this musical comedy would travel across the Atlantic unless certain changes were made in the production. At the first performance I caught, the hero was portrayed by Enn Reitel who, although quite talented, seemed ancient. The role of Sally was sung by Su Pollard, an English talk-show personality whose performance seemed quite mechanical. Certain characters, most notably the Duchesss of Dene and Herbert Parchester (a Gilbert & Sullivan patter role disguised as the family solicitor) were so rooted in the British social structure that I wondered how well Americans would relate to them.

I shouldn't have been so apprehensive, for the separation of classes endemic to British society which continues to seem so deliciously quaint to American audiences, makes this story of true love conquering the breach between blue blood and cockney crudeness the perfect show for matinee theatre parties. However, upon seeing the Broadway production, I was more than a little bit amused to see how the show had been "Americanized."

Instead of the plump and pasty-faced dancers I saw in London, the tanned and trim GQ types in New York looked as if they had just arrived from an aerobics class. Maryann Plunkett's Sally was more aggressive than Su Pollard's and Nick Ullett's Gerald more of an aristocratic caricature. The dramatic energy of Jane Connell's Duchess and Timothy Jerome's Parchester was completely different from what I had seen in London. And the biggest difference, at least for me, lay in the magnificent performance by the show's original star, Robert Lindsay, as the hero, Bill Snibson.

The team of Lindsay and Plunkett gives Me and My Girl an entirely different feeling than what I got from watching Enn Reitel and Su Pollard's performances in London and the slick physical production (as well as Noel Gay's genuinely hummable tunes) have made this show one of Broadway's biggest hits in recent years. While Me and My Girl is as light-hearted a piece of fluff as one could hope to find in the musical theatre (and I'd be the last person to begrudge the Broadway production its success) I think Broadway audiences are in for a bit of a shock later month when Les Miserables opens in New York and offers theatergoers a musical with much meatier substance.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 5, 1987.

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