Monday, January 30, 2012

Different Strokes For Different Folks

One of the strangest tests a drama can face is whether or not it will resonate with audiences from a foreign culture. Despite the steady flow of cultural traffic between the United States and Great Britain, many British plays have landed on Broadway stages with a resounding thud. Some Broadway musicals, after being exported to the West End, were not as well received as their producers had hoped.

While the use of subtitles in film has helped to cross many cultural borders, the appeal of certain shows may be so unique to a particular ethnic culture (or historical period) that one wonders what kinds of adjustments must be made to broaden a show's appeal. Although Lotfi Mansouri introduced the use of Supertitles to the international operatic community with the Canadian Opera Company's 1983 staging of Elektra, Broadway had attempted something very similar two decades before

Alexander H. Cohen tried to import a popular Italian musical comedy which he planned to stage in New York in its original language while projecting a running translation above the proscenium  To his great disappointment, Rugantino (which opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on February 6, 1964 and closed after 28 performances) proved to be a costly flop.

Sometimes a familiar story, a powerful brand name, and lots of theatrical spectacle can suffice.  Although Tarzan: The Musical was met with fairly hostile reviews at its 2006 New York premiere, a reworked version of the show has had strong success in the Netherlands and Germany. Here's a promotional clip from the Hamburg production (sung in German):

During the first half of the 20th century, the Yiddish theatre was notorious for "improving" plays like Hamlet. In 1968, producer David Merrick received a special Tony Award for a radical experiment with nontraditional casting.

On January 16, 1964, when Hello, Dolly! opened at the St. James Theatre, the show became the biggest musical hit since My Fair Lady. After Carol Channing finished her run with the original Broadway cast, she was replaced by Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, and Bibi Osterwald.

But with ticket sales lagging and increased competition from new shows, Merrick (who loved gimmicks) needed something to boost box office sales. In 1967, he came up with what might be the best gamble of his career, especially considering the racial tension of the 1960s.

Merrick create an all-black company of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway with a supporting cast that included Clifton Davis, Mabel King,and Morgan Freeman as Rudolph (the head waiter at the Harmonia Gardens). The production tried out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before heading to New York.

On Saturday, November 11, 1967, the mostly white cast of Hello, Dolly! played its last performance on Broadway before heading out on a national tour with the sets that had been used in Washington. They left behind the scenery and lighting which had been in use at St. James Theatre for nearly four years.

On Sunday, November 12, the black company of Hello, Dolly! moved into the St. James Theatre for a rip-roaring premiere (I had a standing room ticket for that performance). It was one of the great -- and historic -- opening nights on Broadway.

In the following video clip from the 1968 Tony Awards, Jack Benny presents a special award to Carol Channing, who then introduces Pearl Bailey and the all-black company of Hello, Dolly!

During Fiddler on the Roof's difficult out-of-town tryout in Detroit, the creative team worried that their show might have "limited appeal" and wondered how the dynamics of life in a poor Jewish shtetl would translate to other cultures. The show's huge success on Broadway (where Fiddler opened eight months after Hello, Dolly!) led to productions in multiple languages.

Much to everyone's surprise, Fiddler's universal appeal translated into box office gold in theatres around the world. The following clip shows a Japanese cast rehearsing the opening number, "Tradition," according to Jerome Robbins's original direction and choreography.

* * * * * * * * *
With a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William Finn, Falsettoland premiered on June 28, 1990 at Playwrights Horizons in New York. March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were subsequently merged into one piece entitled Falsettos, which opened on Broadway on April 29, 1992. In the following clip, Kevin Dozier sings "What More Can I Say" at a 2005 benefit concert in San Francisco.

When I first learned that StirFry Theatre (a newly-formed Bay area Asian-American theatre company) was planning to stage Falsettoland, my first thought was: "Oh my God, are they going to perform it in Jewface?" But then I became really curious and wanted to know:
  • How would Falsettoland play some 30 years after the onset of the AIDS crisis?
  • Would the show's dramatic core be diminished in an age when gay couples can legally marry and adopt children?
  • How would Falsettoland play to members of an older generation of gay men with AIDS who, thanks to medical breakthroughs, are still alive?
  • How would the show's impact change when performed by an Asian-American cast?
Poster art for StirFry Theatre's production of Falsettoland

Falsettoland's plot revolves around the role a bar mitzvah plays in bringing together a fractured family in which the father, Marvin (Alex Hsu) left his wife, Trina (Jennifer Oku), for a male lover named Whizzer (Romar De Claro), who eventually broke up with him. To make matters even more complicated, the wife later married the husband's psychiatrist, Dr. Mendel (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias).

To add to the confusion, Marvin's two next-door neighbors are a lesbian couple: a radiologist named Dr. Charlotte (Jean Harriet) and her slightly neurotic lover, Cordelia (Nicole A. Tung). Meanwhile, to the utter confusion of Marvin's son, Jason (Andrew Apy), his parents can't stop fighting over every aspect of planning Jason's bar mitzvah.

Jennifer Oku, Andrew Apy, and  Alex Hsu in
StirFry Theatre's production of William Finn's Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

So much has happened since Falsettoland first premiered that a new look at the once popular Finn/Lapine musical proved to be an eye-opener. The first issue -- which modern audiences could easily take for granted -- is the fact that Falsettoland premiered at the height of the AIDS crisis, when not enough was known about how to combat the disease. In its own peculiar way, the show is now a period piece.

Why? The introduction of antiretroviral drug therapies had a huge impact on patient protocols. As a result, today's youth have grown up in an environment in which the National Institutes of Health consider AIDS to be a manageable disease.

For those with access to healthcare, an AIDS diagnosis is no longer perceived an immediate death sentence. Gay plays, gay films, gay literature, and gay journalism are no longer solely focused on AIDS-related stories.

Alex Hsu, Romar de Claro, Jean Harriet, and Nicole A. Tung in
StirFry Theatre's production of William Finn's Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

Directed by StirFry Theatre's founder, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias (who also appeared as Dr. Mendel), Falsettoland has lost none of its stageworthiness. The company made excellent use of the intimate Alcove Theatre (a lovely, underutilized theatre near Union Square which deserves to host more shows).

With Doug McGrath accompanying the cast on piano, StirFry Theatre's production was notable for its solid musical preparation. Once again, I was deeply impressed by the singing of young Andrew Apy (who appeared in the recent TheatreWorks production of The Secret Garden). During their racquetball games -- as well their more tender moments -- Alex Hsu and Romar De Claro delivered especially fine performances as Marvin and Whizzer.

Romar De Claro and Alex Hsu in Falsettoland
Photo by: Diana Torres-Koss

After about 20 minutes, the novelty of watching Falsettoland being performed by an Asian-American cast evaporated into thin air and became totally irrelevant.  "Everyone Hates His Parents" has lost none of its charm.  Alex Hsu sang "What More Can I Say?" with great charm and and a simple tenderness while Romar De Claro did a bang-up job with "You Gotta Die Sometime"

StirFry Theatre's talented group of actors did a beautiful job of bringing William Finn's music back to life. Performances of Falsettoland continue at the Alcove Theatre through February 12 (click here to order tickets).

No comments: