Friday, June 15, 2012

Sing For Your Supper, Strip For Your Son

Poverty? Loneliness? Rejection? Insecurity? Hunger? Humiliation? Anxiety? Depression? Find me a creative person who has never dealt with these issues and you'll have discovered the bionic artist.

A recent series of articles by Lightsey Darst in The Huffington Post (in which the author explains why dance is the poorest of all the art forms) outlines in excruciating detail the expenses dancers incur and the diminished incomes they face throughout the course of their professional careers. Like dancers, many writers, musicians, and other working artists can barely scrape by without the help of a generous partner, patron, family, or circle of friends.

For some, the School of Hard Knocks delivers a lifetime of dashed ambitions and never-ending disappointment. Others find ways to compensate for the lack of financial remuneration with a lifestyle filled with the kind of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual rewards that can't be purchased in a shrink-wrapped package.

When times are tough, artists aren't the only ones forced to grit their teeth in order to survive. Desperate times often call for desperate measures. Sometimes people surprise themselves by the lengths to which they will go in order to support their dreams. Some end up having to swallow their pride in the process of making ends meet.

On August 13, 1997, a film was released about a group of depressed and unemployed steelworkers in Sheffield, England who decided to put together a Chippendales-type of strip act in order to raise some money. Not only did The Full Monty draw positive reviews and attract large audiences, it was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture. Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Musical Score.

On December 19, 1997, James Cameron's blockbuster, Titanic, was released. The only Academy Award taken home by the creators of The Full Monty was for Best Original Musical Score.

Nevertheless, The Full Monty  inspired one of the most rapid screen-to-stage adaptations of a popular film into an award-winning Broadway musical. Following an out-of-town tryout at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the musical version of The Full Monty opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on October 26, 2000.

With a new book by Terrence McNally, music by David Yazbek, and the story relocated to Buffalo, New York, the musical ran for 770 performances and has since delighted audiences from South Korea to Croatia and Iceland; from Greece to Singapore and South Africa.

San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre is currently presenting an extremely intimate version of The Full Monty down at the 290-seat Eureka Theatre under the direction of Jason Hoover. Having seen the show previously in a theatre nearly four times that size, it's interesting to see what happens when the audience is so easily drawn into the action. As Hoover stresses in his program note:
"When we began picking shows for this season, I was immediately drawn to The Full Monty. Beneath this light-hearted musical comedy are serious and instantly relatable themes of identity, self-image, masculinity and responsibility, set against a timely backdrop of economic dislocation. Grounding the great songs and comic moments are characters we can't help but root for. The final moment of the show is not only a financial payoff for our heroes but a personal one as well."
Out of work steelworkers in Ray of Light Theatre's
production of The Full Monty (Photo by: Claire Rice)

ROLT's production was nicely cast with Chester J. Dion as Dave Bukatinsky, Helen Laroche as his wife, Georgie; and Gwynn Villegas as Buddy "Keno" Walsh (the professional stripper who gets a television job as a local weatherman).

Joshua Fryvecind cut a fine figure as Jerry Lukowski, the unemployed, divorced father who is several months behind on child support payments for his teenaged son (Elijah Diamond) and whose wife (Leslie Waggoner) is planning marry her live-in boyfriend (Chris Uzelac).

Among the unemployed workers who audition for Dan, Jerry, and their feisty old cougar of a pianist, Jeanette Burmeister (Cami Thompson), are:
  • Malcolm MacGregor (David Mister), a closeted Catholic Mama's boy consumed with guilt.
  • Ethan Girard (Ross Neuenfeldt), an extremely well hung and sympathetic gay man who shares Malcolm's love for The Sound of Music.
  • Noah "Horse" T. Simmons (Wendell Wilson), an elderly black man who, even if he is insecure about the size of his dick, has certainly got the moves.
  • Harold Nicholas (Derek Travis Collard), a former supervisor at the steel mill who has been trying to buy his wife's affection with new gadgets, fancy clothes, and a luxury cruise he can't possibly afford.
The men in Ray Of Light Theatre's production of
The Full Monty (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Among the standout numbers in Yazbek's score are "Big Black Man," "Jeanette's Showbiz Number," "Breeze Off the River," and "You Walk With Me." The finale, "Let It Go," is one of those indestructible audience pleasers.

The one problem I had with ROLT's production (and it is a distinctly odd one) is that, due to the vagaries of the production's sound design, even though I was sitting in the second row of the theatre there were many moments when I could barely hear the singers because they were being drowned out by the upstage band. As I stood in the rear of the small auditorium listening to the exit music, there seemed to be a much better balance of sound.

* * * * * * * * *
I first became aware of the three-person rock band named GrooveLily back in December of 2004, when TheatreWorks presented the world premiere of Striking 12, an impressive updating of Hans Christian Andersen's tale about The Little Match Girl. Since then, the team of Valerie VigodaBrendan Milburn (her husband), and Gene Lewin has written:

Like many bands, GrooveLily spent long stretches on the road, performing for small audiences in church basements and private homes while wondering if their lives would ever make sense. As they traveled the country's lonely highways in a Winnebago (with a "bitchin' kitchen"), they listened to some stupefyingly bad country music, tensions continued to build, relationships started to fray, and the dream they had all been focused on seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Although the band's attempts to create a second "GrooveLily concert musical" began at a New Works Retreat in 2005, it would take seven long years before Wheelhouse would become the 60th show to receive its world premiere from TheatreWorks. As the company's artistic director, Robert Kelley, explains:
"This ode to the road was deeply rooted in the band's personal experience and drawn straight from the heart. With shocking honesty, it took the most difficult moments of their personal and professional lives and laid them bare, stunning me with its originality, self-deprecating humor, and personal truth. The music was the play, the singers were the orchestra, and the characters were the writers: old friends, nearly crushed by the weight of their own high hopes.  
It's one thing to bare your soul in a diary, quite another to sing it out loud to the world.  It can take years to understand the pivotal events of our lives; they haunt, agonize, and embarrass us long before coming into focus as our stepping stones to the future. At the 2005 New Works Festival, Wheelhouse had a rough outline, a few unforgettable songs, and uncertainty in every direction."
Valerie Vigoda, Brendan Milburn, and Gene Lewin
star in Wheelhouse (Photo by:  Mark Kitaoka)

In the intervening years, Groovelily's musicians were able to spend more time writing, take a break from extensive touring, enjoy more financial security, and settle down to raise their families. Milburn's bio currently states that:
"Brendan is still mystified to find that he is making a living as a composer: musical theater (Striking 12, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Toy Story: The Musical), songs for animated movies (four films about Tinker Bell for Disney), and odd pop songs for Warner-Chappell and his band, GrooveLily. In addition, he's a record producer (Jenny Giering, Kevin MacCallum, GrooveLily), arranger/orchestrator/musical-helper-outer for other people (The Burglars of Hamm), and a mostly-stay-at-home dad for his six-year-old son. Brendan is happiest when stretching his brain and learning new things. Lately that's involved delving deep into Ableton Live to develop a looping/solo performance system with Valerie Vigoda for her solo concerts; cooking gluten-free and dairy-free meals for his family; hating hot weather and yet doing Bikram Yoga regularly."

Gene Lewin, Valerie Vigoda, and Brendan Milburn in
a scene from Wheelhouse (Photo by:  Tracy Martin)

What makes Wheelhouse especially interesting to me is that these three talented musicians (who are still in the early phases of their careers) have crafted a self-referential show which is highly entertaining, driven by some of their struggles to succeed, and yet manages to share the emotional and financial roller-coaster ride of an itinerant, unfamous musician's lifestyle with charm, wit, and some great songs.

The scenic design by Kate Edmunds incorporates Jason H. Thompson's projections in a way that gives the audience a genuine feeling of spending long, lonely hours on the road. Directed with a great sense of fluidity by Lisa Peterson, Wheelhouse benefits immensely from Kris Umezawa's sound design, which always showcases his singers without ever overpowering the audience.

Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda
 star in Wheelhouse Photo by: Tracy Martin

The spirited, athletic, and emotional performances by Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn offer a touching contrast to Gene Lewin's more laid-back style as a drummer. The scene in which Lewin impersonates a used-car salesman is hilarious!

What sets Wheelhouse apart from many other new shows is that it is written and performed by musicians the audience genuinely cares for, and delivers GrooveLily's songs with a balance, sensitivity, and ingenuity that never fails to please. In addition to her writing and performing responsibilities with the show, Valerie Vigoda kept a video blog of the show's creative process which can be viewed on YouTube (start here). Here are some sample clips:

Performances of Wheelhouse continue through July 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

1 comment:

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