Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Make Our Garden Grow

An economic crisis does not bring everything to a crashing halt. Children continue to be born, patients still get sick, and the creative process continues to flourish.

Sometimes, in order to ensure that new life survives its critical first stages, additional help is needed.  Infants born prematurely (or with low Apgar scores) will often end up in a hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).  Venture capitalists will often ask entrepreneurs with a valid business plan to partner with a business incubator. In the theater, a series of readings and workshops can make a major contribution to polishing a new play in a way that will improve its ultimate chances of success.

Not surprisingly, the Bay area is a hotbed of dramatic creativity. A quick look at the mission statements for PlaygroundThe Marsh (which bills itself as a breeding ground for new performance), Boxcar Theatre, and Berkeley's Central Works Theatre Ensemble reveals a dedication to embracing a collaborative process which allows playwrights to develop new works using a system of trial-and-error readings before live audiences.  Not only does this help a playwright to hone his craft, the feedback gained in the process usually goes a long way toward strengthening the final product.

Most of the Bay area's larger theatrical companies have some sort of incubator program which facilitates script readings.  In July of 2008, the American Conservatory Theatre's First Look program of new works performed Lillian Groag's War Music. That same month, the Magic Theater hosted the annual Bay Area Playwrights' Festival.  

For the past several years, the Magic Theater's Raw Play series has included the Commonwealth Club New Play Readings (which have been generously underwritten by Martha Heasley Cox). On Monday, December 8th, this program presented a script reading of Zayd Dohrn's extremely promising new comedy (most appropriately entitled Sick) about a family suffering from a mother's stifling hypochondria. On Monday, December 15th, Claire Chafee's Whispers From The Book of Etiquette will be given a similar reading at the Commonwealth Club. The Marin Theatre Company boasts a Nu Werkz Series which will offer readings of Kate Walbert's Elsewhere in February and A. Zell Wiliams' Blood/Money in May.

Further down the Peninsula, Theaterworks has had great success with its New Works Initiative. Each spring, this program offers a series of readings of plays and musicals which may subsequently receive fully-staged productions by Theatreworks or another performing arts organization. Among the better known artists to get readings from the New Works Initiative have been Andrew LippaMarsha NormanAdam BockStephen Schwartz and Duncan Sheik. Based on the novel by Jane Austen, Paul Gordon's musical, Emma, went from a New Works Initiative reading to a Theaterworks mainstage production (becoming the highest-grossing show in the company's 38-year history) and was eventually selected to be one of the productions staged at the National Alliance for Music Theatre's Festival in New York.

Currently playing at Theatreworks is a new musical by the creative husband-and-wife team (Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda) who comprise two thirds of GrooveLily.  Back in 2004, when Theatreworks presented the West Coast premiere of GrooveLily's Striking 12 (which updates Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about the little match girl to modern times), I was immediately struck by the fact that this creative team had brought a uniquely theatrical and solid new voice to the American musical theatre.  Here's a sample of what GrooveLily's music is all about:

It's important to understand the singularity of GrooveLily's artistic vision, the personal stamp of their musical style, and their maturation as a composing team (Vigoda and Milburn have been co-creators for almost 15 years). Here's a clip of GrooveLily performing a number from Striking 12.

Since the initial success of Striking 12 (which received its premiere in 2002 from Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater and has now had productions licensed from Dallas to Seoul), Groovelily has gone on to create Are We There Yet? (2003) and composed the incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre and Paper Mill Playhouse. GrooveLily launched its own label (QMR Records) and in 2007 premiered Sleeping Beauty Wakes at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles (where the show won two Ovation awards).  GrooveLily has since been commissioned by Disney to write the music for Toy Story:The Musical as a project to be performed at sea by entertainers on board the ships of Disney Cruise Lines.

Their latest musical, Long Story Short, follows in the footsteps of several other two-character musicals which trace the arc of a couple's relationship.  In 1966, Mary Martin and Robert Preston starred in an adaptation of Jan de Hartog's play The Fourposter that was directed by Gower Champion with music and lyrics by Tom Jones  & Harvey Schmidt.  I Do! I Do! has gone on to charm many an audience, with Agnes and Michael being portrayed by Carol Lawrence and Gordon MacRaeCarol Burnett and Rock Hudson and many others.  A 1982 television version of the show starred Lee Remick and Hal Linden.

In 1978, Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein starred in Neil Simon'They're Playing Our Song (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) which premiered in Los Angeles and then settled down for a long run (1,082 performances) at Broadway's Imperial Theater. In 2001, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years received its premiere in Chicago and has become a favorite on the small theater/cabaret circuit.  

Although written in wildly different musical styles, what all four shows have in common is an economy of scale that makes them ideal candidates for cost-effective productions by college theater departments, regional theater companies and suburban dinner theaters.

Long Story Short, which received its premiere in October from the City Theatre of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, employs a simple unit set which, like I Do! I Do!  mainly consists of a giant bed.  What is most striking about the play however, is the sleek, lean efficiency of the writing, the driving pulse behind the score, and its sparklingly modern wit.  Other than the two actors onstage, Long Story Short requires only six musicians in the pit.

Based on David Schulner's play, An Infinite Ache, the usual struggles associated with any long-term marriage are enhanced/complicated by assigning its protagonists to two specific ethnic identities (which are accompanied by unique sets of emotional baggage).  Hope is an Asian American woman of Chinese descent born in San Francisco, who is now living in Los Angeles. Charles is an insecure Jew, newly arrived in Los Angeles, aiming to make some new friends when they first meet on a casual night out.

As each character thrashes through his/her neuroses over the course of the evening, the audience is treated to a surprisingly sophisticated level of writing propelled by a rapid-fire delivery of intensely-packed lyrics that are at once progressive, contemporary, touchingly intricate, and often funny. The result is that Long Story Short pushes through the evening with the breathless momentum of a runaway train.  

This is a show in which two horny young lovers don't hesitate to grope each other for a quick sexual thrill as well as a show in which an aging lover must deal with the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. Transitions from one moment in Charles & Hope's relationship to another occur in a flash -- making more traditional musicals like I Do! I Do! or They're Playing Our Song seem as quaint and sluggish as a transatlantic crossing on the Aquitania.

Ben Evans and Pearl Sun in Long Story Short (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Directed with a great sense of zeal by Tracy Bridgen (who makes excellent use of Neil Patel's unit set), the production benefits tremendously from the rapid mood changes effected by Andrew Ostrowski's lighting.  As the two lovers, Ben Evans and Pearl Sun perform at a feverish pace -- perfectly capturing the intensity of young lovers trying to cram as much as possible into their lives until their relationship practically implodes from exhaustion.  Their highly energetic portrayals beautifully capture the angst, exhiliration, challenges, and depression seen in any relationship.  No makeup is used to suggest the aging process.  Instead, there are rapid changes of shoe styles, bedside clocks, the woman's hair and hemlines.

If you consider yourself a true aficionado of the Broadway musical, you'll want to catch this production to see what the future holds in store.  If you're a producer looking for a cost-effective project for future seasons, you're about to meet a musical which will satisfy your artistic vision while pleasing your accountant.  If you simply want an invigorating night out at the theater, I can't recommend this delightfully entertaining, magnificently crafted confection strongly enough. 

Don't miss it!

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