Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dream Your Little Dream

Here's a curious piece of trivia: If you look at the "one" year in each decade since 1930, you're bound to find a musical that was either groundbreaking for its time or the work of a major composer. Consider the following:
Two of the above-named musicals have received major facelifts thanks to technological advances in stagecraft.  Whereas the original production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying featured cartoon-like sets by Robert Randolph and costumes by Robert Fletcher, the 1995 revival (which starred Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullaly) featured an exciting new use of computer graphics which incorporated video by Batwin & Robin Productions, Inc. into the set design by by John Arnone

The new touring version of Dreamgirls which just roared into the Curran Theatre features sets by Robin Wagner integrated with Howard Werner/Lightswitch's computerized multimedia effects and costumes by William Ivey Long. Back in 1981, when Robin Wagner designed the original Broadway production, audiences were amazed at how Wagner's lighting towers literally danced across the stage, becoming an integral part of the action.

The new production (whose technical wonders are detailed in a fascinating article by David Barbour in the March 2010 issue of Lighting and Sound America) does the unthinkable. It makes the 1981 production look downright primitive and almost geriatric. For those who found the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls surprisingly lacking the electricity of the stage version, the production currently on display at the Curran Theatre adds lots of cinematic flair and vitality to the show without diminishing the audience's thrills. In the following video clip, members of the creative team discuss some of the changes that were made:

From the very first beats of Henry Krieger's score, Dreamgirls roars out of the opening gate and never slows down. I really can't think of another Broadway musical that goes from 0 to 60 mph in ten seconds and maintains that pace for a solid two and a half hours. The cast gets a total aerobic workout, the computerized sets (which incorporate a series of LED displays) are a technological triumph, and the story still packs a wallop.

The backstage crew has its hands full during each performance (although the moving scenery may be automated, each performance requires the cast of 26 to don a total of 305 costumes and 175 wigs). Under Robert Longbottom's energetic direction and choreography (aided by Shane Sparks), the new version of Dreamgirls is every bit as remarkable as the original. It incorporates all the magic of live theater in ways that will leave audiences nearly paralyzed with admiration. I was so jazzed up from the performance that I couldn't sleep for three hours after I got home from the theatre (and believe me, that doesn't happen very often).

The cast for this production of Dreamgirls is exceptionally strong. Syesha Mercado starts off meekly as a young Deena Jones who blossoms into a Diana Ross-like pop icon with Adrienne Warren (Lorrell Robinson) and Margaret Hoffman (Michelle Morris) as her backup singers. As the difficult Effie White, Moya Angela has no problem bringing down the house with a huge voice that serves her especially well in the Act I curtain number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Trevon Davis shines as Effie's songwriter brother, C.C. White.

Among the male leads, Milton Craig Nealy is suave as the loyal, old-school Marty, Chaz Lamar Shepherd is the snakelike Curtis Taylor, Jr., and Chester Gregory (a spectacular performer) owns the stage as rhythm and blues singer, James "Thunder" Early.

Dreamgirls continues at the Curran through September 26 in a production that revitalizes a Broadway classic while encapsulating everything that is right and good about the culture of musical theatre. You can order tickets here.

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The previous night, over at the Rrazz Room, San Francisco's most beloved (and delusional) Russian opera diva, Katya Smirnoff Skyy (J. Conrad Frank) took the stage for a one night stand which included some music from Dreamgirls. While Effie's song, "I Am Changing" was cleverly used by Katya's musical director, Joe Kanon, to kill time while the star was getting into a new costume, you really haven't lived until you've heard "One Night Only" sung with a mock Russian accent.

Countess Katya Smirnoff Skyy
Imagine a cross between Tallulah Bankhead, Arianna Huffington, Bette Davis, and Ira Siff (a/k/a Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh). Or, if you prefer, read Katya's description of herself:
"I am the Great Katya Ludmilla Smirnoff-Skyy, reigning diva of the Russian opera world. My hair is lavish, my accent thick, and my voice....giant, or so I am told. The details of my life are somewhat shrouded in mystery. The great Katya was born in Communist Petrograd, the daughter of a famous dancer and a roving gypsy minstrel. During her formative years, Katya traveled Europe with her half-sister Kielbasa (the Polish lunch lady), until the fateful day she met and wed the good Count Smirnoff-Skyy. Together they returned to the motherland and lived happily for many years, until the Count's unfortunate demise. Katya was left alone, with little more than a title, a voice, and a fabulous collection of imperial jewels. She knew it was time to return to the stage -- the world had waited long enough. After the great fall of Communism, Katya packed her makeup bag and came to 'the America.' Now she plays concert halls, opera stages, and the occasional drag bar. She is a dutiful employee of the Macy's, where she sells 'the Makeup,' fulfilling a life-long dream to beautify the world."
Countess Katya Smirnoff Skyy
Whether Katya is performing a hilarious rendition of Bizet's Act I aria from Carmen (the famous Habanera) -- a role in which she claims that she was so beautiful she never bothered to learn the words for the second verse -- "Blackbird," "Everything's Coming Up Katya," or her own peculiar version of "Down With Love," the lady is an impressive act.

Stringing together her take on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," "Let's Fall In Love," and "Take A Chance On Me" with her own version of "My Life Would Suck Without You," Katya has developed a loyal audience that faithfully attends her shows every third Sunday at Martuni's as well as her occasional stints at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Dressed in stunning outfits by "Mr. David," she uses her fierce falsetto and superb comic timing to keep the audience eating out of her hand. As she recounts her hilarious conversations with people like John Lennon, it's hard to resist her peculiar charms.

Her appearance at the Rrazz Room proved, once again, that Katya is at her best when her audience is drinking along with her. Witness her hilarious rendition of "I Got Vodka" (her version of Gershwin's delightful "I Got Rhythm" that was first made famous by Ethel Merman in 1930's Girl Crazy):

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