Thursday, December 6, 2007

Street Operas

Contrary to popular belief, not every opera involves kings, queens, gods and goddesses. Instead, many libretti center around the wretched refuse of the lower classes. Ever since the premiere of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728, amorally carnivorous creatures like Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett have rubbed elbows backstage with psychopaths like Katerina Ismailova and the evil Baron Scarpia. Peasant trash like Strauss's dyer, Barak, and Beethoven's jailer, Rocco, have shared their dressing rooms with gypsy sluts and Japanese geisha girls.

For most of these people, the name of the game is survival and, regardless of society's loftier notions, in order to get by the ends almost always justify the means. Whether these characters sell their bodies to pay the rent or slit people's throats for the price of a shave, it's all a part of life's cruel folly to them. Each knows that his number will eventually be called and, for some, the bottom line is simply that whoever has the most toys when he dies is fated to win life's vicious little game.


If you think the panhandlers who have settled in on Castro Street are professionals, perhaps you should pay a visit to Victorian London's Beggars' Outfit Shop. Run by the enterprising Mr. and Mrs. Peachum with the sole intent of separating England's softer-hearted souls from their money, this smarmy enterprise -- like the tacky brothel where Jenny Diver works in Wapping -- is the poor person's way of staying alive on the streets. It ain't pretty, but it's real, all right.

With songs like "The World Is Mean," and "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera (which premiered in 1928 -- exactly 200 years after The Beggar's Opera) shows audiences the grim and gritty side of life in the streets. Its cast of characters includes murderous thieves, heartless whores, professional beggars and corrupt police. With its nasty book and libretto by Bertolt Brecht, it is hardly the kind of show which will please either the faint of heart or those who seek mindless entertainment.

Nevertheless, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's recent production deserves kudos for its lean and mean spirit. As staged by Andrew Traister in Ashland's 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre (and with superb costumes by Jeannie Davidson) The Threepenny Opera proceeded down its nasty little path with plenty of ballads, bluster and bile. I particularly admired Penny Metropulos' portrayal of the haughtily alcoholic Mrs. Peachum. Joe Vincent's suave Macheath and Gretchen Rumbaugh's wide-eyed, pregnant Lucy Brown were excellent characterizations. The men in Mack the Knife's gang offered some magnificently slimy cameo performances while Vincent O'Connor's bumbling Commissioner of Police proved to be an incompetent jewel.

That being said, I must confess that, musically, The Threepenny Opera has never really been my cup of tea. Although I can admire the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production, I wouldn't necessarily rush to see this work performed anywhere else.


Queenie Pie, however, is quite a different story. A much more cheerful affair which recently had its world premiere in Philadelphia, Duke Ellington's most important creative effort was unveiled as part of this year's American Music Theatre Festival. The plot revolves around a Harlem hairdresser and cosmetologist named Queenie Pie who, rather innocently, keeps winning her own beauty contests year after year. When faced with some stiff competition from a New Orleans hooker named Miss Cafe O'Lay, Queenie Pie wonders if there might be more to life than the search for beauty and the constant effort to satisfy her raging narcissism. Following a do-or-die contest in creative hairstyling, Queenie Pie bestows her crown on Cafe O'Lay and seeks happiness in the arms of her loyal boyfriend, L'il Daddy.

A hilarious dream sequence takes Queenie to a fantasy Caribbean island where she restores the natives' long-lost curly hair and jungle rhythms. And, while Queenie Pie delights in spoofing racial stereotypes, any opera which can ask its audiences if they dare to imagine that there could be something wrong with being a hairdresser gets my vote for having balls.

Duke Ellington had been working on his "street opera" up to the time of his death and, with further musical adaptation done by Maurice Peress and some very fine playing by the Duke Ellington orchestra, Queenie Pie resembed a cross between Guys and Dolls, Ain't Misbehavin' and Dreamgirls. Its score is a combination of big band blues and Harlem swing with lots of scat (singing) and plenty of low-down sexual camp. Numbers like "Style," "Cafe Au Lait," "It's Time For Something New," "Two Cat Scat Fight," "Creole Love Call," "The Hairdo Hop," "Stix," and especially "A Blues For Two Women" are vintage Ellington.

Garth Fagan's direction and choreography backed by David Mitchell's fantasy sets made Queenie Pie a total delight. The wig work by Dennis Bergevin and Jeffrey Frank (as well as Eduardo Sicangco's superb costume designs) merit special mention. The excellent cast, headed by Teresa Burrell's superb Queenie Pie, Patty Holley's sultry Cafe O'Lay and Larry Marshall's L'il Daddy, sang the pants off of Duke Ellington's music. The back-up trio of LaVerne, LaGrille and LaRue (Lilias White, Teresa Bowers and Melodee Savage) as well as Ken Prymus's appearances as Harlem's Mayor and the Chief of Queenie Pie's Caribbean fantasy island were pricelessly funny.

In short, Queenie Pie was hot stuff, indeed. The performance I caught in Philadelphia was, without doubt, one of the most entertaining evenings of musical theatre I've enjoyed in years. Too bad you weren't there to join in the fun!

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 16, 1986.

No comments: