Friday, July 24, 2009

Boys To Men: The Musicals

I never had a bar mitzvah. Technically, that means I never had a chance to stand before a group of family and friends and say "Today, I am a man." That codification of the journey from boyhood to adolescence and adulthood was the road I never traveled.

It's not a particularly sensitive issue for me. On stage, screen, and in literature, I've watched boys turn into men in situations ranging from William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies to the bar-mitzvah party scene in 1962's Broadway musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale and on through to 2006's Keeping Up With The Steins.

Working for nearly 10 years in a YMCA summer camp, I had a unique chance to observe many a young man blossom and mature. Some went crazy with the onset of puberty, others get lost in patterns of arrested development. Some learned how to become self sufficient and shoulder the responsibilities of becoming a man while others, as they aged, couldn't seem to shake the Peter Pan syndrome best described in Carolyn Leigh's and Moose Charlap's song from the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan.

Ever since 1904, when James M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan, audiences have fantasized about learning how to fly and being able to achieve eternal youth. Time, however, waits for no man. Four stage productions seen in the past week examined what happens when the innocence of youth is lost (whether by choice or necessity). Two of them, by sheer coincidence, happened to be stagings of Peter Pan.

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During the 15 years that I wrote about opera, I would occasionally have the chance to see two different productions of the same opera within a brief period of time. The experience often made for fascinating comparisons in how a stage director approached a classic, how the interpretations of specific artists differed, and what might happen if one director chose to update the opera to a different time and/or place.

The differences between the two productions of Peter Pan seen this week in East Bay venues are fairly obvious:
  • Westminster Summer Musicals stages its productions in an outdoor 1500-seat amphitheatre that was built as a WPA project in Joaquin Miller Park and dedicated as a memorial to California writers in 1940. You can see a list of the shows produced during the past 43 years under the artistic direction of Harriet and Jim Schlader. Since 1998, the company has had a special Kids Come Free deal for members of the community. Many families picnic outdoors before the performance (some have been coming to Woodminster for three or four generations).
  • Berkeley Playhouse is a new company which has been performing at the Ashby Stage but, starting next season, will make Berkeley's Julia Morgan Young People's Performing Arts Center its new home. The company also offers music conservatory courses for all levels (and all ages) of performers, including summer musical camp.
  • The stage of the Woodminster Amphitheater is at least 10 times the size of the Ashby Stage. Whereas the Woodminster stage is extremely wide, the Ashby Stage is almost square-shaped.
  • Woodminster Summer Musicals has a functioning orchestra pit capable of holding enough musicians to perform the standard orchestrations for Broadway shows. For its production of Peter Pan, Berkeley Playhouse used a severely reduced orchestra with drastically modified orchestrations.
With those physical differences in mind, it's interesting to see how the same show could be so different in performance. Directed by Joel Schlader, Woodminster's production starred Susan Tilson as Peter Pan with Robert Moorhead doubling as Mister Darling and Captain Hook.

Robert Moorhead as Captain Hook (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Supporting cast members included John Tichenor as Smee, Krista Yu as Tiger Lily, Deanna Ott as Wendy, Anthony Ferguson as Michael, and Grant Lowenstein as John (with Todd Schlader doubling as the Croc and Nana, the trusty St. Bernard who acts as nursemaid to the Darling children). Added eye candy was supplied by the hunky torso of dancer Joven Calloway as one of the Indians (Calloway has the kind of elegantly defined musculature that used to make famous photographers like Kenn Duncan and Roy Blakey shutter with excitement).

A purely technical consideration gave the production an extra level of appeal for me. Usually, when performed in a proscenium theatre, the audience cannot see the machinery used to fly Peter and the children back and forth across the stage. With the rigging used by Flying by Foy (the company that designed the original 1954 production starring Mary Martin) exposed to the audience, it was fascinating to get the full mechanical view of how the stagecraft works.

Photo by: Kathy Kahn

Tilson's Peter was quite traditional and an utter delight. Moorhouse's Captain Hook was deliciously droll and highly entertaining. Special kudos to Bong Dizon for choreography which managed to fill the amphitheater's huge stage and take some of the action out into the audience.

Susan Tilson as Peter Pan (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

By contrast, the Berkeley Playhouse production seemed severely overproduced and was hampered by a horribly weak performance from its musicians. Flying sequences were designed so that Peter could soar out above the first row of children in the audience. Brandy Collazo's Peter was decidedly more boyish and, although occasionally more athletic, nowhere near as endearing. Gabriel Grilli's Captain Hook offered a sense of pure comic melodrama.

Earlier this year, Berkeley Playhouse staged a production of Once On This Island of such exceptional quality that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. To my great disappointment, the company's staging of Peter Pan fell far short of the high artistic standards set by its previous production.

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Down in Palo Alto, Theatreworks offered the world premiere (the company's 52nd) of a new musical by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen. Directed by Robert Kelley, Tinyard Hill takes place in a small town in rural Georgia during the summer of 1964. What struck me most about this production was its lean efficiency, its remarkable balance between each character's needs and emotional conflicts, the way it steadily built sympathy for the two young lovers, and its appealing musical score, which neatly kept propelling the plot forward.

Tinyard Hill was workshopped at Goodspeed Musicals, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and The Human Race Theatre Company before receiving its "original developmental full production" from the Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham, Alabama. While I would hesitate to describe this new musical as a country-music operetta, it is so smoothly crafted and through-composed that, in its current condition, it could happily play off-Broadway and please audiences on a national tour. With only four characters onstage, it's easy to keep track of everyone's problems.
  • David Kingsley (Chris Critelli) is a young country blacksmith working for his father. At 18, he has big dreams of converting the family business into an auto body shop. David's a good ole country boy (brighter and more sensitive than one might expect) with a long life ahead of him -- even though he recently had to register with his local draft board.
  • David's father Russell (James Moye) returned home from serving in World War II determined that he and his family would never get involved in another war. Before shipping off to Europe, he had been dating the neighbor's girl and, although they really seemed to be in love and had talked about getting married, his country needed him.
  • May Bell Whitehead (Allison Briner) may have gotten pregnant by Russell before he left town, but miscarried. She subsequently married another man -- who eventually left their loveless marriage. May Bell now refers to her ex-husband as "the bastard." Sharp-tongued and occasionally short-tempered, she is quick to remind David that "I don't hate you, I hate yer Daddy." A talented seamstress whose pies always win honors at the county fair, May Bell is a firm believer that all those Vietnamese people need to do is find Jesus. Isn't that special!
  • Aileen Garrett (Melissa WolfKlain) is May Bell's niece from New York. Engaged to be married, she has fled all of the attention being lavished on her in the big city to visit her aunt, who promised to make Aileen's wedding gown. Although she believes she is getting married for all the right reasons (her fiance Henry is an honorable man and her mother is happy with their engagement), something seems to be missing from Aileen's life. Something called passion.
Melissa WolfKlain and Allison Briner
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

It doesn't take long for the curious, picture-taking Aileen to take a shine to David. As the two start spending more and more time together, May Bell and Russell have to work throughtheir longstanding animosities toward each other for the sake of the younger generation. May Bell, who considers herself to be socially well connected in her small town, doesn't want Russell's son giving her niece any second thoughts about love and romance when Aileen is already engaged to be married. Russell, on the other hand, is desperate to find a way for his son to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

Things quickly go wrong after Russell takes May Bell up on her offer to try to bribe the Mayor in the hope that she can help keep David safe from the draft. Meanwhile, David and Aileen have fallen head over heels in love.

Chris Critelli (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

When David realizes that he can't keep running away from things now that he's a grown man, he and Aileen decide to get married in the few days remaining before he must report for duty. The show ends with May Bell as bridesmaid and Russell as best man at a small, intimate and sudden wedding.

Photo by: Tracy Martin

Although there is great humor and pathos in Tinyard Hill, there isn't much dialogue aside from a steady stream of zingers coming from May Bell's mouth. Most of the show is written in long arcs of song that have a kind of pop rock/country feel to them. With a simple unit set designed by Tom Langguth, appealing costumes by Cathleen Edwards, and some excellent lighting by Pamila Gray, the show now stands proudly, from start to finish, as a solid piece of polished musical theatre.

One couldn't hope for a tighter ensemble than the four singers who have been so beautifully directed by Robert Kelley. Allison Briner and Chris Critelli take top honors, with James Moye and Melissa WolfKlain providing solid support. Tinyard Hill is a wonderful new musical whose characters will work their way into your heart with a peculiar kind of Southern charm. You can order tickets here.

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On Wednesday night, Boxcar Theatre presented the world premiere of a new street musical with book and lyrics by co-artistic director Nick Olivero and music by Michael Mohammed. Directed by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky, RentBoy Avenue is an extremely ambitious project that was undermined by some obvious technical and structural problems. Its fatal flaw is that it never really gets the audience to care about any of its characters. In his playwright's note, Olivero described some of the difficulties he faced in trying to bring this project to life:
"I started out trying to write a hip new musical people would want to come and see -- and lo and behold, prostitution seemed an appropriate subject matter. In December of 2007, when we decided to theme this season Fairy Tales, the show began its growth, incorporating familiar tales and iconic characters. When our global financial system began deteriorating last fall, the show evolved yet again, taking on what I think is the core of the piece: What are you willing to do to survive? It is important we not judge the choices these characters make, but rather ask why they must make those choices in the first place.

I suppose I am tired of being constrained by apathy. There are some miserable parts of the world out there, and it is getting increasingly difficult to remain numb. At times tonight you may find yourself offended, cringing at strong language, or wanting to get up and walk out -- yeah, I'm right there with you. This writing process was new territory for me. I did try, however, to remain as truthful and honest to this harsh world, this desperate environment, and yet as hopeful as possible. Beneath the layers of dirt and grime and the numerous F-bombs that make David Mamet look like a sissy children's storybook writer is a tale of innocence, a tale of scared children -- or maybe it's just a modern Hansel and Gretel. You tell me."
Despite songs that are provocatively titled "The Streets of Shit and Shame," "Punk Rock Slut," "Ordinary Run of the Mill Dirty Old Man," and "The Anthem of Freaks," there was absolutely nothing that offended me about RentBoy Avenue. My virgin ears did not burn. Nor was I ever bored. The play just didn't grab me.

Photo by: Peter Lui

The action takes place on "a piece of shit street in some city otherwise known as the world's trash can." The walls of the theater have been spray painted with graffiti. The rest of the set (designed by Don Cates) consists primarily of a movable staircase and mobile units of multi-level scaffolding.

The costumes by Sarah Beth Parks capture the grunge of the homeless (at one point in the evening, a character taunts someone sitting in the audience for being a the kind of sucker who would spend $25 to come inside and see what he could have experienced just outside the theater for free). Among the denizens of the constantly changing neighborhood are:
  • Sister Mercy (Michelle Ianiro) a no-nonsense charity worker who manages a local soup kitchen, hands out condoms to hustlers and prostitutes, runs a needle exchange program, and is not afraid to use physical force to bring a sinner to his knees.
  • Trashcan Sally (Erica Richardson) is a fat black woman who had been building a promising career as a singer until she got hooked on drugs and fried her brains.
  • Twink (Jepoy Ramos) is a male hustler who thinks he's really cute, hot and smart.
  • The Dirty Old Man (Donald Currie) represents all the homophobic, self-righteous Johns who come to the ghetto in search of fresh male flesh with which they can enact their fantasies. They quickly become consumed with guilt, violent toward their tricks, and then go home to their wives and children in suburbia.
  • Mark (Bradly Mena) is a bruised and battered 17-year-old veteran of the streets who, although quite proficient at giving blow jobs, would still like to believe that he's straight.
  • Jackie (Danelle Medeiros) is a sassy female teen prostitute with a nasty drug problem.
  • The Pimp (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) is the neighborhood's economic engine for the street people.
Danelle Medeiros and Anthony Rollins-Mullens
(Photo by: Peter Lui)

The play begins with the arrival of David (Bobby Bryce), a 14-year-old from Manhattan, Kansas who has been kicked out of his family's home for being gay. Given a bus ticket to the big city, David has arrived in a rundown section of town where, unbeknownst to him, his sturdy boy soprano will soon become a major asset in selling his body to chicken hawks.

Bobby Brice as David (Photo by: Peter Liu)

The first person David meets is Mark, who throws some leftovers into the hands of the broke and hungry newcomer. David may have a sweet, young face but he is not stupid. It doesn't take long for him to start learning the ways of the street and showing up for free soup at Sister Mercy's kitchen. Before long, he is dealing drugs under the watchful eye of Jackie's pimp. Meanwhile, Mark has gotten used to taking unnecessary risks with closeted married Johns who have a perverse need to exorcise their demons through violence.

Bradly Mena and Donal Currie (Photo by: Peter Lui)

When David offers some affection, Mark recoils (demanding that David pay him $50 to make sure the tenderness they shared didn't mean anything). Later, when Sister Mercy offers Mark a bus ticket to Santa Fe, he tries to get Jackie to leave town with him. Jackie's pimp puts a quick stop to that fantasy.

At the end of the show, we see David -- still the young boy with a soprano voice -- as someone who has quickly grown into the role of a sweetly sadistic master, leading around an obedient elderly John on a leash. He is now quite at home on the streets.

Olivero's script takes most of his characters on distinctly unpleasant emotional journeys, some of which lead to growth, some of which remain mired in addiction and abuse. The basic problems with the show are that (a) certain moments just don't seem to gel, (b) few emotions other than anger and resentment are ever expressed, and (c) the characters never elicit any sympathy from the audience.

There were some problems with sound engineering on opening night which made it extremely difficult to understand Olivero's lyrics (the music is most unmemorable). While additional performances may give the cast greater strength in putting the show over to the audience, my sense is that RentBoy Avenue, while quite artistically ambitious, will probably not develop legs.

As I left the theatre, I found myself yearning to go home and listen to Cy Coleman's brilliant score for The Life, a 1997 musical that dealt with the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and street people who inhabit Times Square. Although this show did not get much exposure outside of New York, it contains one of Coleman's best scores.

If you do not own the CD of the show's musical score, it's well worth purchasing. In the meantime, here's a number from the show as performed by the original cast at the 1997 Tony Awards ceremony in Radio City Musical Hall.

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