Monday, May 10, 2010

That Special Touch

While the media has had great fun spoofing the renowned homophobe George Alan Rekers and his insistence on a "special touch" (in the nude massages he received from the male escort he hired from, there are situations which require a stage director to have a very light touch as well as a deep appreciation for the type of comedy or drama he is preparing for the public. Whether directing a period piece or a type of play that is very carefully tailored to a certain genre, the director has to walk a fine line between making the action believable and pushing too hard.

A fine touch becomes extremely important when dealing with certain types of physical and/or romantic comedy. Too heavy a hand can cheapen the effect. Too little guidance can not only leave weak spots painfully exposed, but allow what should have been an airy soufflé to implode.

Two stage productions currently before Bay area audiences manage to get just the right amount of levity onstage so that the script -- dated or quaint as it might be -- actually works. That's the kind of theatrical achievement that is easier said than done. Solid dramaturgy and good theatrical taste contribute to the outcome. But, as Meredith Willson stressed in 1957's big hit, The Music Man: "You gotta know the territory!"

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Often referred to as "the Moliere of the middle class," British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is also an extremely prolific writer. The author of 74 plays, his famous trilogy, The Norman Conquests, takes place in the same house. The action in Table Manners is set in the dining room. Living Together is set the drawing room. Round And Round The Garden takes place in the back yard.

While the story evolves simultaneously in the three plays (but in three different parts of the house), Ayckbourn's writing process embraced an interesting challenge. After writing the first scene for Round And Round The Garden, he wrote the first scene for the other two plays. He then proceeded to write the second scene for all three plays and followed that pattern (finishing two of the plays in one night's work).

A comedy of manners and sexual frustration, Round And Round The Garden takes its title from a nursery rhyme that became popular in Great Britain during the 1940s:
"Round and round the garden
Like a teddy bear.
One step, two step,
Tickle you under there."
The teddy bear holding center stage in American Conservatory Theatre's new production of Round And Round The Garden is Norman (Manoel Feliciano), whose exhausted, cynical wife Ruth (René Augesen) likens him to the kind of loyal but ultimately unmanageable shaggy mutt that loves being the center of attention and will eagerly hump anyone's leg to maintain that favored status. As the play starts, Ruth's sister Annie (Delia MacDougall) and Norman have been planning a romantic weekend getaway. However, there are three big problems:
  • First is making sure that Annie's brother Reg (Anthony Fusco) and sister-in-law Sarah (Marcia Pizzo) arrive on time to take over the care of Reg, Ruth, and Annie's invalid mother.
  • Second is trying to get Annie's belligerent and extremely uncooperative cat back into the house.
  • Third is the fact that Norman (who, in the process of spreading good cheer had seduced his sister-in-law over the Christmas holiday) has arrived in town early. Instead of waiting for Annie at the designated location, he has shown up unexpectedly in her garden.
Manoel Felciano and Delia MacDougall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the time the emasculated Reg and domineering Sarah arrive to relieve Annie of her caregiving duties, it doesn't take long for the sexual tensions between Norman and Sarah to start boiling over. Meanwhile, Annie's blockheaded veterinarian neighbor, Tom (Dan Hiatt) -- who is known for his formidable lack of social skills and inability to express his desire for Annie -- isn't having much success with either his neighbor or her hungry pussy (the one in the tree).

Round And Round The Garden is reminiscent of a string of British sex farces like No Sex Please, We're British! (which ran for a decade in the West End and lasted for only 16 performances on Broadway). It is a form of genteel farce in which, despite a series of missteps and misunderstandings, each character's frustrations and repressed sexual desires never really hit their mark.

Unlike Georges Feydeau's more animated farces -- in which one expects a lot of precisely timed door-slamming amid lightning-quick entrances and exits -- Ayckbourn's plays often deal with the complex neuroses of mature men and women who suffer a total inability to state what they really want from life. As a result, the first act can seem a bit anemic as Ayckbourn lays the groundwork for the chaos generated by Ruth's arrival at the beginning of Act II.

René Augesen and Marcia Pizzo ( Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thanks to a delightfully overgrown unit set designed by Ralph Funicello and John Rando's deft stage direction, A.C.T.'s new production of Round And Round The Garden maintains a delicate balance without ever erupting into total chaos. At the center of the ensemble is a delightfully physical performance by Manoel Feliciano, whose Norman is a teddy bear of a clueless catalyst, all scruffy hair and libidinous mischief. The rest of the ensemble does a beautiful job of revealing each character's weaknesses and emotional frustrations (especially Dan Hiatt, René Augesen, and Marcia Pizzo).

A.C.T.'s production of Round And Round The Garden continues through May 23rd (you can order tickets here). Over in Berkeley, the Shotgun Players will be staging all three parts of The Norman Conquests in repertory in from August 6 to September 5 (you can order tickets here).

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According to the company's mission statement:
"42nd Street Moon celebrates and preserves the art and spirit of the American musical theatre. We are committed to preserving and presenting lesser-known, rarely-produced musical theatre works of the early to mid 20th century. We do so in part to ensure the survival of the origins of the American musical theatre as an art form and contribute to its evolution and continuing vitality by presenting staged concert performances of classic and rarely performed musical works. Through our productions, educational programs, and community outreach, we are committed to increasing the awareness and appreciation of the rich heritage and cultural perspective of the musical theatre and its vast influence on the world stage."
While many evenings at 42nd Street Moon have provided enjoyable trips down memory lane, few have been as revelatory as its current production of
Very Warm For May. Known primarily as the show from which "All The Things You Are" evolved into a hit song, Jerome Kern's musical score ranges from boogie-woogie to operetta. The lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II (this was his last show with Kern before he paired up with Richard Rodgers).

Hammerstein was quite familiar with a more classical approach to song (he wrote the lyrics for three operettas by Sigmund Romberg: 1926's The Desert Song, 1928's The New Moon, and 1941's Sunny River). His skill as a lyricist in Very Warm For May is often breathtaking.

Having grown up primarily hearing jazz interpretations of "All The Things You Are," the biggest shock for me at the opening night of Very Warm For May was to hear the song's original vocal arrangement (which is written for several classically trained soprano voices). The beauty of Kern's writing blew my mind.

The plot of Very Warm For May focuses on two show business families as the summer stock season is about to get under way:
  • Will Graham (Jeremy Vik) is a retired vaudevillian who wants his daughter to get a college education.
  • Johnny Graham (Anil Margsahayam) is Will's son, a famous Broadway actor, producer, director, and all around superstar. He does not have a very high opinion of people who work in summer stock.
  • May Graham (Megan Hopp) is Johnny's willful kid sister. Having been hopelessly bitten by the acting bug, she is determined to spend her summer working at a barn theatre.
  • Winnie Spofford (Maureen McVerry) is a ditsy socialite who recently bought a barn theatre which is now in a state of total turmoil.
  • Sonny Spofford (Luke Chapman) is Winnie's mechanically-minded son, who falls head over heels in love with May.
  • Liz Spofford (Sarah Kathleen Farrell) is Winnie's daughter, whose golden voice is one of her many attractions for Johnny Graham.
  • Alvin Spofford (Jeremy Vik) is Winnie's stagestruck son who, although he has a fierce stutter, is a talented acrobat and juggler.
Megan Hopp and Maureen McVerry (Photo by: David Allen)

Among the theatrical types inhabiting Winnie's barn theatre are:
  • Ogdon Quiller (Bill Fahrner), a narcissistic, self-indulgent, and not very talented stage director/playwright who doesn't want the audience to have the slightest idea what he is doing.
  • Lowell Pennyfeather McGee (Jimmy Robertson), Ogdon's overworked, underappreciated, and slightly fey assistant who desperately craves a chance to shine as a dancer.
  • Raymond Sibley (Robbie Cowan), the resident songwriter/actor who also has a crush on May.
  • Miss Wasserman (Alexandra Kaprielian), an actress with a beautiful lyric soprano.
Anil Margsahayam, Sarah Kathleen Farrell
and Bill Fahrner (Photo by: David Allen)

Hammerstein's book and lyrics for Very Warm For May take delight in puncturing the egos of theatrical stereotypes ranging from multi-talented hoofers (Robbie Cowan's skills as a pianist, conductor, actor, and hoofer make him a perfect choice for the role of quadruple threat Raymond Sibley) to famed drama critic Harold Clurman. His two lengthy pieces for Ogdon Quiller ("Characterization" and "The Strange Case of Adam Standish") provide material perfectly suited to the comedic talents of 42nd Street veteran Bill Fahrner, who has a field day with both numbers.

Other songs that stand out from Kern's score include "In Other Words, Seventeen," "Heaven In My Arms," "That Lucky Fellow," and "Heaven Boogie-Woogie." Throughout the evening, the performance was buoyed by Zack Thomas Wilde's choreography and some impressive costume work by Louise Jarmilowicz.

But, in addition to the musical direction by G. Scott Lacy and Dave Dobrusky, it is really Greg MacKellan's direction that makes this piece come to life with a style, verve, and charm rarely found in today's musical theatre. When 42nd Street Moon first staged Very Warm For May in 1995, MacKellan appeared in the role of Kenny (the Graham family's chauffeur). His solid feel for the show has helped it to float on a cushion of airy innocence.

Needless to say, a good time was had by all. Performances of Very Warm For May will continue at the Eureka Theatre through May 23rd (you can order tickets here).

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