Saturday, May 16, 2009

Till There Was You

Time races on. 

A young filmlover who rents a copy of Butterfield 8 (a 1960 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, and Eddie Fisher) might have no idea what the title refers to. That's because, back in the days before all number calling (ANC), phone numbers were assigned according to telephone exchange names.

The phone number for Lucy and Ricky Ricardo was MUrray Hill 5-9975. Glenn Miller recorded a hit song named PEnnsylvania 6-5000. My family's home phone number in Brooklyn was part  of the NIghtingale 5 (645) exchange. A friend in Rhode Island was always proud of the fact that she was on the HOpkins 1 (461) exchange.  According to Wikipedia:
"AT&T proceeded to convert existing named exchanges to ANC starting in smaller communities. No significant opposition arose until conversion began in major cities. In some cities such as San Francisco, opposition was organized; the opposition group in San Francisco was called the Anti Digit Dialing League, of which S. I. Hayakawa was a notable member. The opposition forced AT&T to slow down the conversion and names did not totally disappear in major cities until 1978 (New York City & Philadelphia), long after AT&T had hoped to complete the conversion. Even today, however, it is not uncommon in New York City to see a new panel truck with a telephone number such as "JA 6-xxxx" painted on its side."
Long before direct distance dialing became the norm, you had to dial "0" and ask an operator to place a long distance call for you. I may be one of the few people in my circle of friends who can claim experience operating a PBX (Private Branch Exchange) board as part of his professional resume. For those who have no idea what an office's telephone switchboard used to look like, there's a classic moment in the movie version of Auntie Mame in which Rosalind Russell tries her luck at a PBX console.

Ah yes, those were the days. It was a time without voice mail (when you had to speak to a real live person in order to leave a message). It was a time without caller ID (when you couldn't screen your phone calls). It was a time when people felt compelled to answer their phones because:
  • It might be an important call.
  • There was no way to stifle the bell on their telephone.
  • It would have been rude to ignore a phone call.
Unless, of course, they were dead.

* * * * * * * *

SFPlayhouse is currently offering a production of Sarah Ruhl's dark comedy, Dead Man's Cell Phone.  The play begins as Jean (Amy Resnick) sits in a cafe, having just finished a bowl of lobster bisque. A cell phone keeps ringing at a nearby table, although the man sitting at the table makes no effort to answer its nagging demands for attention. It doesn't take long for Jean to realize that the man is dead and that, with the acquisition of his mysteriously powerful cell phone, she is about to embark on a wild adventure.

That's because Jean is the kind of good-natured soul who would try to take a message for someone who is quite noticeably dead. She would keep answering calls to his cell phone in the naive hope that, by doing so, she could prolong his memory for those who needed to contact him. As her responses bring her into contact with the dead man's relatives, mistress, and questionable clientele, Jean's life becomes a comic nightmare in which she gets caught up in the illegal sale of human organs and ends up in a very peculiar kind of hell that has laundromats for the dead.

By becoming the sudden, if accidental, friend of someone who has just died, a shy person can quickly fall victim to the temptation to reinvent his or her life. As Jean starts to embellish the few facts she knows about the deceased man, she ends up falling in love with the decedent's brother, traveling to South Africa in search of a kidney, and closing the show with Ruhl's life-affirming vision.

Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

Dead Man's Cell Phone reminded me of a film I saw in January as part of this year's Berlin and Beyond Film Festival.  In The Friend, a talented female musician asks a nebbishy young college student if he will say he's her boyfriend. What he doesn't know is that she is planning to commit suicide and wants him to be able to comfort her parents with the thought that at least she did have a boyfriend. The gimmick which lies at the core of both dramas allows a writer to take wild leaps -- that defy all logic -- and roll with the consequences.

Although much of Ruhl's writing is quite strong (and delivers sturdy laughs to the audience), there are several moments (especially in the second act) when one wonders if the playwright is struggling to find a way to bring her drama to its conclusion.  Under Susi Damilano's astute direction, Jean bounces back and forth between bizarre encounters with the decedent (Bill English), his mother (Joan Mankin), his wife (Rachel Klyce), his mistress (Florentina Mocanu) and his brother (Jackson Davis). 

If Ruhl's script did not impress me as much as it did some others, that could be because cell phones have become such a ubiquitous annoyance in recent years that a dead man's cell phone may actually be cause for celebration (one less asshole forcing the public to listen in on his conversations).

* * * * * * *

This weekend the Oakland East Bay Symphony offered a Jerome Kern extravaganza, with songs from Kern's Broadway and movie scores as well as a one-act CliffsNotes treatment of Show Boat. With Michael Morgan on the podium, the audience was treated to selections in arrangements varying from a cool jazz trio to a full-blown Hollywood-style orchestra.

The evening began with the Oakland Symphony Chorus performing Look for the Silver Lining (from 1920's Sally), followed by Robert Sims' rendition of Pick Yourself Up (written for 1936's Swing Time). Tami Dahbura scored strongly with the classic torch song Why Was I Born? (from 1929's Sweet Adeline) and later showed her comedic chops with I Won't Dance (a song originally written for Three Sisters -- which flopped on Broadway -- but subsequently inserted into the film version of Roberta)

Mezzo-soprano Debbie de Coudreaux wrapped her velvety tones around The Way You Look Tonight (also from Swing Time) and Yesterdays (from 1933's Roberta). Soprano Julie Adams did a very nice job with Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (also from Roberta) while Ben Jones (whose phrasing always impresses) offered a splendid rendition of Long Ago and Far Away (from 1944's Cover Girl). An added bonus was All The Things You Are (from 1939's Very Warm For May).

Prior to the performance, John Kendall Bailey offered an impressively detailed lecture about some of the stage elements what made Show Boat so shocking at its 1927 premiere (the opening line was "Niggers all work on the Mississippi" and, like Edna Ferber's novel, a key plot line dealt with miscegenation). Bailey explained how political pressures had caused so many permutations in Kern's score (including one version in which the black characters were eliminated entirely). He also described how, during his career as a concert artist, Paul Robeson kept changing Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics to suit his tastes.

For the second act,  Eric Wenburg served as narrator with Julie Adams as Magnolia, Ben Jones as Gaylord Ravenal, Debbie de Coudreaux as Julie, Tami Dahbura as Ellie, and Robert Sims as Joe (delivering an exceptionally strong rendition of Ol' Man River). Kern's contributions to the great American songbook can never be underestimated. 

Even though many of the most popular songs from the first half of the 20th century came from Broadway and Hollywood musicals, it took many more years before America's catalog of music theater began to be respected and celebrated as a core part of America's cultural literature. This summer Bay area audiences have a chance to sample a wealth of great song material from such prolific songwriters as Jerome Kern,  Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick LoeweRichard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein IIGeorge & Ira Gershwin, Cy Coleman, Stephen Schwartz, and Jule Styne.  In alphabetical order, here are the show being peformed in theaters around the Bay during the next few months:
In addition, the San Francisco Symphony will present Bernadette Peters in concert on June 27, and a special Bugs Bunny on Broadway program on July 17.

Although no production of The Music Man will be mounted this summer, I have always felt that this scene from Meredith Willson's classic musical captures the heart of romance as expressed in the form of the American musical.

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