Monday, May 14, 2012

Born Again Musicals

In 1989, Don Bluth's animated feature film, All Dogs Go To Heaven, was released. Anyone who has witnessed the painful birthing of a musical knows that heaven is rarely its final destination. Dori Berinstein's 2005 documentary, ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway, followed four shows (Wicked, Taboo, Caroline, or Change, and Avenue Q) from their pre-production meetings through to their Broadway openings and the 2004 Tony Awards.

Not every musical becomes a money machine like The Phantom of the OperaLes Misérables, or Mamma Mia!  Many a musical has closed out of town without ever getting a chance at a Broadway opening. Among the notable fiascos are:

Others (Breakfast At Tiffany's, Let It Ride, SophieHot Spot, Jennie, The Vamp, The Fig Leaves Are Falling, Something More, Carrie, and Kelly) were miserable failures that lost lots of money. Occasionally, there are shows that may not have been initially successful but, with a little bit of tinkering, achieve a new, improved status.

Such properties usually find new life in regional, community theatre, and college productions. Two of them were recently staged in the Bay area.

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There is a certain subset of musicals whose appeal is largely enhanced by music that invokes images of foreign lands and ethnic cultures.
Poster art for 1976's Pacific Overtures

Although Illya Darling ran for 320 performances (mostly on the basis of Mercouri's star power), another musical adaptation of a popular Greek film had an even shorter run. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joseph Stein, the original production of Zorba was directed by Harold Prince and starred Herschel Bernardi and Maria Karnilova in the roles created by Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova in 1964's Zorba the Greek.  Zorba lasted for only 305 performances.

Michael Stevenson as Zorba with Stephanie Rhoads as
Mme. Hortense in Zorba (Photo by: David Allen)

I did not warm to the original production, in which Prince had cast Lorraine Serabian as the leader of a traditional Greek chorus. I often found Ebb's lyrics simplistic to the point of being embarrassing and could not, for the life of me, understand why an idiotic number like "Happy Birthday" had been inserted into Mme. Hortense's death scene.

Despite the earnest contributions of Carmen Alvarez as the Widow and John Cunningham as Niko, the book never really grabbed me. Still, there was no denying the appeal of Don Walker's original orchestrations and of Kander's music for songs like "Life Is, "The Top Of The Hill," "The Butterfly," and "Yassou."

Although Bernardi was a familiar Broadway star (especially from his appearances in Bajour and as a replacement Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof), Zorba did not grab me. I did not make an effort to see the 1983 Broadway revival directed by Michael Cacoyannis that starred Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova.

Michael Stevenson as Zorba (Photo by: David Allen)

When 42nd Street Moon recently staged Zorba I had a chance to reassess the work. My first impression was that it fits much better on the small stage of an intimate venue like the Eureka Theatre. With Michael Stevenson in the title role and Ian Leonard as the younger Niko, the show's two male leads dominated the action, with Alexandra Kaprielian's Leader and Teressa Byrne's Widow providing strong soprano voices. Stephanie Rhoads was appropriately coquettish as Mme Hortense, the dying courtesan who has fond memories of entertaining admirals from four different nations ("No Boom Boom") and scored nicely with "Goodbye, Canavaro."

Greg MacKellan directed the production, with Dave Dobrusky and Nick Di Scala providing musical backup. Although Zorba strikes me as a decidedly second-tier Kander and Ebb musical, I found some interesting musical hints in its songs of what was to emerge in 1997's Steel Pier (which may well contain their finest score). Here's the trailer:

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Although I did not get to see the world premiere of Everything's Ducky down at TheatreWorks in 2000, I was delighted with its second incarnation, Lucky Duck, which was recently given a splendid production by the folks at Berkeley Playhouse. Created by Bill Russell, Jeffrey Hatcher, and Henry Krieger (who wrote songs for Captain Kangaroo before gaining fame for Dreamgirls and Side Show), Lucky Duck is an updated version of Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale of The Ugly Duckling.

Matt Ono as Free Range Chicken #1 in
Lucky Duck (Photo by: Larry Abel)

Directed and choreographed by Kimberly Dooley with a grand sense of humor (Wendy Kaufman's costume designs are a hoot), the show was the inspiration of Bill Russell, who had always wondered what happened to the ugly duckling after it blossomed into a swan.  As Russell recalls:
"The whole idea of becoming beautiful and being celebrated for that is the flip side of being ugly (you're still defined by your looks). Wanting to be beautiful and famous are narcissistic concerns.  Our characters find they have to engage in the world a little more because if they don't, it won't matter if they're beautiful."

Naomi Hummel stars as Serena in Lucky Duck
(Photo by: Larry Abel)

One of the most interesting things about Lucky Duck is that, while designed to capture the attention of an audience filled with restless young kids, Russell's puns and Dooley's sight gags whiz by with the glee of an extremely snarky creative team. Plenty of jokes that may be lost on kids will bring hearty laughter from their parents. 
  • When his authority is challenged, one villain doesn't hesitate to ask Chicken Little if the sky isn't looking just a little bit crooked to him.
  • The hero who wants to love a swan is a direct descendant of the Big Bad Wolf.
  • The show is set in a mythical kingdom ruled by ducks where vegetarianism is the law.
  • A minor character named Kim Chi can't pronounce the Crown Prince's name properly and keeps addressing the libidinous playboy as "Dlake" instead of "Drake."
  • Mention is made of the fact that Daffy Duck was gay and that Donald Duck was equally difficult to deal with.
  • The wolf and the villainous Coyote Brothers fantasize about feasting on a menu of barnyard fare that features dishes made of "duck, duck, goose." 
Wolf (William Hodgson), Drake (Benjamin Pither) and Carl Coyote
(Billy Raphael) in Lucky Duck (Photo by: Larry Abel)

Krieger's rowdy score is highly energetic and --  in comedy numbers like "That's One Ugly Duck," "Helping Paw," "Wolfiloquy," "Wipe That Egg Off Your Face (And Make A Great Big Omelet)," and ""You Look Good Enough To Eat" -- lots of fun. Ballads like "Average, Simple, Mega Superstar" and "I'd Love To Sing A Love Song" go down nicely, especially when sung by the likes of Naomi Hummel as Serena (the swan who is "down on her luck but still full of pluck") and William Hodgson as the wolf who is sorely tempted to lead a carnivore revolution.

Benjamin Pither flies through the air as Prince Drake
in Lucky Duck (Photo by: Larry Abel)

Strong support came from Benjamin Pither as Crown Prince Drake, Nicole C. Julien (doubling as Goosetella and Sally Storkola), Melinda Meeng (doubling as Mrs. Mallard and the Queen), and the hilarious Nick Nunez (doubling as fashion photographer Armand Dillo and the King). Katherine Cooper, Brian Dauglash, Aubri Kahalekulu, Billy Raphael and Matt Ono added to the fun in a wide variety of minor roles.

Naomi Hummel, William Hodgson, and Aubri Kahalekulu
in Lucky Duck (Photo by: Larry Abel)

Theatre producers looking for a new "family-friendly" Christmas show would do well to consider Lucky Duck for future seasons. Its running time is about the same as The Nutcracker, it has several roles for children, and with good direction and an energetic cast, the show whizzes by in a flash without ever sagging. Rest assured, everyone at the Berkeley Playhouse performance I attended left the theatre with happy grins on their faces.

Naomi Hummel and William Hodgson in Lucky Duck
(Photo by: Larry Abel)

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