Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hard-Learned Lessons In Love

Popular mythology would have us believe that people fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after. As most of us have learned, life doesn't always imitate art. The path to true love is an obstacle course filled with unexpected complications.

Written for their 1958 Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song, Rodgers and Hammerstein's poignant "Love, Look Away!" is rarely heard these days. Yet Hammerstein's lyric speaks volumes about contemporary relationships. Although a young Marilyn Horne dubbed the singing for Reiko Sato in 1961's film adaptation, it is the character of Helen Chao who sings the following lyric
"I have wished before,
I will wish no more.

Love, look away!
Love, look away from me.
Fly, when you pass my door,
Fly and get lost at sea.

Call it a day.
Love, let us say we're through.
No good are you for me,
No good am I for you.

Wanting you so,
I try too much.
After you go,
I cry too much.

Love, look away.
Lonely though I may be,
Leave me and set me free,
Look away, look away, look away... from... me."
Bottom line? It's easier to dream about love than to find it (unless, of course, you can get some help from unlikely sources). Whether or not those guardian angels will succeed in a delivering anything resembling a lasting relationship remains to be seen. But at least they're willing to help.

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One of the quirkier pleasures at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was a short by Luke Matheny, a talented young filmmaker who has a pretty solid grip on storyboarding and style. Matheny seems to do quite nicely in short formats, as evidenced by his three-minute short entitled The Date:

The synopsis for Matheny's 2007 short entitled Earano reads as follows:
"In this comic twist on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac tale, a shy, big-eared tutor named Earl longs for a romance with the lovely librarian, Roxie. But the arrival of a hunky janitor puts a kink in Earl's plans and sets into motion a surprising and funny story of unrequited love."

Who could be more unlucky than God of Love's Raymond Goodfellow, an aspiring lounge performer whose singular talent involves throwing darts while he sings. Played with Matheny's trademark goofiness, Raymond would continue to be a romantic loser were it not for some godly intervention.

Raymond Goodfellow (Luke Matheny) and
Fozzie (Christopher Hersh)  in God of Love
Raymond receives the answer to his prayers when a mysterious package of passion-inducing darts arrives in the mail. Matheny is quick to explain that:
"As someone who has had plenty of unrequited crushes on various girls throughout the years, I was eager to tell a story that celebrates unrequited love. But as someone who can now recognize his earlier crushes as -- well, let’s be honest -- absurd exercises in delusion, I was also determined to critique the image of the lovestruck hero. I thought a dramatic simple triangle -- boy likes girl, girl likes boy’s best friend, boy’s best friend doesn’t like girl -- would afford me the chance to explore these notions in a compelling and entertaining way. Throw in some magic, some laughs, a jazz score and a stylish B&W look inspired by 1950s jazz photography and French New Wave, and you have the kind of movie that I, for one, would love to see. So now I present God of Love with the nervous hope that it’s the kind of movie that someone else might love to see, too."
God of Love won Matheny the 2010 Student Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The following trailer offers a quick glimpse at this 19-minute film's charms:

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Silk Stockings (the last musical that Cole Porter wrote for the stage) was based on Ninotchka, a short story by Melchior Lengyel that had been adapted for the silver screen in 1939 as a vehicle for Greta Garbo. Silk Stockings had a rocky pre-Broadway tryout during which its two writers (George S. Kaufman and his second wife, Leueen MacGrath) were replaced by Abe Burrows. The fact that its three leads (Hildegard Knef, Don Ameche, and Gretchen Wyler) had never appeared in a Broadway musical didn't make its out-of-town performances any easier.

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon is currently staging Silk Stockings in a well-intentioned revival which unwittingly exposes some of the show's weaknesses. The years have not been all that kind to Cole Porter's score, in which only three songs really stand out ("Stereophonic Sound," "Siberia," and the show's one big hit, "All of You").

The plot revolves around the efforts of Soviet bureaucrats to find and bring home a budding composer who has been making a name for himself in Paris, a city that loves lovers. However, once anyone who has grown up in the blandness of Soviet life tastes the intoxicating joys of Paris, returning home to Mother Russia has no appeal whatsoever.  Enter Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne), a sturdy apparatchik of the Communist Party with little femininity and even less humor.

Steven Canfield (Ian Simpson) and Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne) in
42nd Street Moon's production of Cole Porter's Silk Stockings
Photo by: David Allen

Ninotchka soon falls for the charms of Steven Canfield, an amorous American who sees her as a romantic challenge. Meanwhile, Hollywood's musical swimming star, Janice Dayton (a delicious spoof of Esther Williams), has arrived in Paris to make her long-awaited dramatic debut a a film adaptation of War and Peace. She quickly decides that Tolstoy's masterpiece needs to be rewritten so that, among other things, it will have a happy ending. That's because, in Janice's publicity-driven little world, enthusiasm always trumps cultural literacy.

Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne) dances with Steven Canfield
(Ian Simpson) in 42nd Street Moons' production of Cole Porter's
Silk Stockings (Photo by: David Allen)

There's no doubt that the original Broadway version of Silk Stockings (which ran for 478 performances at the Imperial Theatre) was a popular hit. The 1957 film version (starring Fred Astaire, Janis Paige, and Cyd Charisse) was an even bigger success. But 55 years ago, Russia offered a real political threat and a great comic foil. Today, it is one of our allies.

This revival was ably directed by Greg MacKellan, who got the best work from Dyan McBride's portrayal of Janet Dickson.  Ian Simpson (Steven Canfield) and Lee Ann Payne (Ninotchka) took on the romantic leads with strong support from Daniel Epstein (Peter Ilyitch Boroff), Jeremy Vik (Babinski), Michael Rhone (Ivanov), Jackson Davis (Brankov), Nancy Dobbs Owen (Vera), and Bill Olson (doubling as the hotel doorman, Alexei, and and a Russian choreographer named Grigori).

Silk Stockings may not be my cup of tea, but it's hard to resist a classic Abe Burrows line like "What do you mean he's dead? I didn't even know he had been arrested!"

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Both 42nd Street Moon and Berkeley Playhouse are devoted to producing Broadway musicals. Each also serves as a school, educational resource and runs summer camps for aspiring young performers.  When director Jon Tracy (whose work I greatly admire) told me he would be writing and directing a new musical entitled Pride that would focus on LGBT issues, I was eager to see the results.

Berkeley Playhouse's artistic director, Elizabeth McKoy, is deeply devoted to producing shows that are "intelligent, relevant, and soul-stirring." In her program note she writes:
"When I started the Berkeley Playhouse four years ago, I knew that one of our most important artistic goals would be to create new works for our audiences.  But what story would we tell as our first new work?  We knew we had to tell a story that felt urgent and relevant, and we wanted to center our story on LGBT issues -- we wanted to tell a story that would look at restricted rights, homophobia, bullying, and suicide.  This new work in development is hopefully just the beginning -- the beginning of this beautiful and important musical story and the beginning of the Berkeley Playhouse developing new works for our audiences."
Poster art for Born and Raised

Unfortunately, Born and Raised suffers from what I call "the Prettybelle syndrome." For those who don't know, Prettybelle was a 1971 musical that closed after its Boston tryout without ever making it to Broadway. Its creative team read like a who's who of top musical theatre professionals.

The show was produced by Alexander H. Cohen with sets designed by Oliver Smith. Book and lyrics had been written by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl, Carnival!) with music by Jule Styne (Bells Are RingingGypsy, Funny Girl). Heading the cast was Angela Lansbury (Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, Dear World), with  Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival!Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do!) as director/choreographer.

With so much talent on board, what could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything. At the first performance of Prettybelle that I attended, the show was horribly overwritten and its dramatic momentum crippled by too many flashbacks.

Born and Raised suffers from similar structural problems (as well as an overly ambitious desire to make sure that all politically important bases are covered). Set in the Bay area, it features the following cast of characters:
  • Young Connor (Melina Cohen-Bramwell), an unhappy boy who is constantly teased at school for having two lesbians as his parents. Although his parents are often tempted to call the police whenever Connor is bullied and beaten at school, the fact that they are a lesbian couple prevents them from feeling they are entitled to police protection for their child.
  • Young Jesse (Yannai Kashtan), the boy who moves in next door and adopts Connor as his best friend. Insisting that they swear an oath to always stick up for each other, Jesse likes to wear a superhero's cape and pretend that, as Fangman, he is endowed with special powers. His father, who is severely homophobic, has no idea that his son might be gay. An unexpected and brutal rejection causes Jesse to commit suicide.
  • Delia (Cathleen Riddley), Connor's birth mother, is a lipstick lesbian who tries to express herself through poetry.
  • Sarah (Scarlett Hepworth) is Delia's overtly butch partner.
  • Elena (Monique Hafen), a teenage lesbian who tries to come out to her hyperreligious father. Alas, he declares her dead in the eyes of God and banishes her from their home.
  • Young Lila (Ariana Gonzales Silas), Elena's kid sister who is emotionally scarred by the loss of her elder sibling.
  • Adult Connor (Brendan Simon), the author of a highly successful series of comic books/graphic novels about a superhero named Man-Man. Severely conflicted about his relationships with his two lesbian parents, Connor is an exhausted, unhappy workaholic who has never been able to fall in love with anyone. He's also looking for a way to kill off Man-Man.
  • Ball (Terry Rucker), Connor's publisher who is painfully conscious of the need to increase revenues in order to meet his payroll.
  • James (Reggie D. White), the new hire who becomes Connor's assistant.  Black, openly gay, and involved with a man who seems reluctant to enter into a same-sex marriage (much less commit to a relationship), James was best friends in school with Lila. Quick to understand that Jesse probably committed suicide because he was gay -- and sensing that Connor and Lila have a lot in common -- he tries to set up a rendezvous between his boss and his best friend.
  • Adult Lila (Charisse Loriaux) is now a television news reporter who, as far as her love life is concerned, is among the walking wounded.
As seen at its final performance, Born and Raised sorely lacks coherence (which is not the same thing as being incoherent). Set against a background in which numerous gay couples are celebrating their chance to be married (thanks to San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom), Tracy's play attempts to examine the effects of the marriage equality movement on children and family life. 

Due to the need to assign multiple roles to a limited number of actors, some odd things which simply don't ring true can be seen in Tracy's staging. Because two of the adults in the cast are Asian men, it's easy to notice them onstage. Both start off as baristas fawning over the adult Connor who, as the creator of Man-Man, is their hero.

Bryan Pangilinan is subsequently seen as David Toda's gay lover but, later in the first act, is also seen as Terry Rucker's partner. Perry Aliado appears as Lila's homophobic father but is later seen as David Toda's gay partner. In the second act, David Toda appears briefly as Jesse's homophobic father.

For children in the audience (and there were quite a few of them), this was probably quite confusing. From a directorial standpoint, bad traffic management created an unnecessary issue with continuity.

Tracy's use of the ghosts of Connor, Jesse, and Lila's childhood pasts to bring about emotional reconciliations for their anguished adults was an interesting gimmick which did not play out as well as it might have seemed on paper. However, what Born and Raised ultimately presented to its audience -- and I suspect this was completely unintentional -- was the idea that no matter how physically exhausted, emotionally conflicted, and spiritually fucked up two heterosexual adults may be, marriage is still the best solution for single men and women who are trying to wrestle down their demons and overcome years of repressed shame so that they can even try to build a future.

Coming from a musical that has been written to address LGBT issues, the message that marriage belongs to a man and a woman (while same-sex relationships keep being trivialized) is a real downer. It could be that the newly-married Tracy (who has written brilliant stage adaptations of Animal Farm, The Iliad, and The Odyssey) is much stronger at adapting other people's work than creating a new piece from scratch. The music and lyrics by Scott DeTurk didn't impress me, either.

Ironically, the most interesting performance came from 12-year-old Yannai Kashtan as young Jesse (the gay kid who knows who he is and ends up committing suicide). Kashtan's energy and natural charisma instantly snap Tracy's play back to life whenever he is onstage. As you watch the following slide show, you'll have no trouble noticing him in his Spiderman-like costume.

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