Tuesday, August 28, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Many an artist, when asked to identify one of their favorite works, claims that their greatest achievement over the course of a long and notable career has been their children. To audiences who are in awe of that person's talent, that remark may seem surprising, perhaps even a cop-out.  But for the artist, their child is the cornerstone of their day-to-day life.

That sentiment in no way negates their formidable artistic gifts. From sculptors to singers, from composers to clowns, these people have spent decades working to hone their craft.

Three oddly disparate evenings demonstrated how a simple ray of light can pierce through the gloom and deliver a sense of joy in the darkest hours.
  • One focused on the beginning of a new life, showing a woman blessed with a new child to love, cherish, and care for.
  • One embraced a modern miracle, demonstrating how a temporary flash of brilliance can become the catalyst for future happiness.
  • One demonstrated the power of a mature artist in the final stages of her career, a beloved performer who has spent a lifetime loving, caring for, and sharing a very special  natural gift.
Like the famous gospel song, each of these evenings demonstrated the power of "This Little Light of Mine." One was waiting to be born and loved, the second restored hope and brought a sense of joy to a barren couple. The third had given audiences a beacon of beauty for many, many years.

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Currently onstage at The Shotgun Players is Precious Little, a curious dramedy by Madeleine George that has been deftly directed by Marissa Wolf (the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company). In George's play, Brodie (Zehra Berkman) is a middle-aged woman with a growing sense of self-awareness as she wrestles with medical personnel who don’t know what to do with an intelligent pregnant lesbian.

Poster art for Precious Little

A linguistics researcher with an acutely scientific approach to her work, Brodie is confronted by several challenges at a major turning point in her life:
  • Pregnant at the age of 42, an amniocentesis has revealed the possibility that her child will be born with an unspecified genetic abnormality.
  • Faced with medical personnel who have not been trained to deal with an informed patient, Brodie encounters an unexpected challenge communicating in her own language.
  • Her young lover (a grad student who, though she may be a cunning linguist capable of transcribing interviews about rare foreign languages, does not really want to help Brodie raise a child) may be thinking about ending their relationship. 
  • Cleva, an elderly woman who is one of the last people still fluent in the dying language of Kari, has been becoming more agitated as each of her sessions with Brodie triggers repressed memories from her troubled youth.
  • A gorilla at the local zoo, who supposedly responds to a more extensive vocabulary than most primates, has a special surprise in store for a lesbian intellectual who has run up against a wall of clinical coldness. To the confused Brodie's astonishment, the ape teaches her that unconditional love does not require language.
Brodie (Zehra Berkman) meets with Cleva (Nancy Carlin) and her
daughter (Rami Margron) in Precious Little (Photo by: Pak Han)

As someone who specializes in the finer points of linguistics, Brodie is rarely at a loss for words. But the inconclusive results of her amniocentesis force the woman to confront the curiously vague language of uncertainty (a clinically-correct and calculated word structure that may be designed to avoid scaring patients with harsh realities while minimizing the possibility of legal action). In her director's note, Marissa Wolf writes:
"When human language cannot contain the vast, roiling possibilities of connection and loss in her life, Brodie must carve out space for a new language, a new creation myth inside a terrain unreachable by human speech. When this brilliant and sharp-edged linguist (who believes wholly in the primacy of the human language above all other forms of communication) is pushed to the brink of her known world, standing in the chilly breeze of the unknown, we witness her need for a new understanding, not only of language, but of herself. It is here, inside this terrifying and exhilarating world of new language, that Precious Little wrestles with the choices women face surrounding career, childbearing, and amniocentesis. In the face of our precious little choices, the possibility of communion out beyond human language may offer us the grace we need to survive."
Rami Margron imitates children at the zoo as they watch a
gorilla (Nancy Carlin) in Precious Little (Photo by: Pak Han)

Zehra Berkman stars as Brodie, while Nancy Carlin portrays the ape, an embryo seen in a sonogram, and the confused, elderly Cleva. The most versatile performance of the evening comes from Rami Margron, who alternates between Cleva’s exhausted daughter, Brodie’s zoo-fixated lover, and a clueless OBGYN interviewer. Margron also delivers a priceless aria mimicking the parade of zoogoers fascinated by the gorilla. Performances of Precious Little continue at the Ashby Stage through September 9 (click here to order tickets).

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A new Disney film might strike some viewers as overly manipulative, but I found The Odd Life of Timothy Green to have a curious and powerful charm. Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Cindy (Jennifer Garner), are an attractive young couple whose dreams of having a child have been stymied by infertility. Their most recent piece of bad news (a rejection from a local adoption agency) triggers an emotional meltdown which is deftly defused by Jim's attempt to cheer up his wife by playing a game in which they imagine the characteristics of their ideal child.

As they polish off a bottle of wine, Jim and Cindy write each of their ideas on a piece of paper and then place their notes in a handsome, hand-crafted wooden box. After burying the box in their back yard, they head upstairs to bed.

That night, a miraculous storm drenches their land. Loud thunderclaps awaken the couple and they discover a dirt-covered boy sitting in their kitchen who calls them "Mom" and "Dad" and introduces himself as Timothy (the only boy's name they had included in their list of potential baby names). Unlike other children his age, Timothy has green leaves sprouting from his lower legs.

CJ James and Jennifer Garner in The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Before Jim and Cindy can even grasp the enormity of what has happened, their relatives arrive for a picnic. With everyone in the community aware of the problem Cindy has had getting pregnant, how should she introduce a brand new child who has materialized out of thin air? A brand new child who is decidedly "different" from her nieces and nephews?

Although written as a fable, The Odd Life of Timothy Green offers viewers plenty of options for interpretation. Timothy could be seen as a gifted child, an LGBT child, or a child whose birth defect could lead to a shortened life. Are his parents overprotective out of fear? Shame? Or from the shock of having the child of their dreams suddenly enter their lives?

CJ James and Odeya Rush in The Odd Life of Timothy Green

While Timothy (CJ Adams) displays surprisingly mature insights into the lives of people around him, his newfound parents have plenty of their own emotional baggage to explore. Whether it involves Jim's Daddy issues or Cindy's resentment of her sister's easy successes, there are lots of learning lessons in store (all of which have been sensitively framed by director by Peter Hedges).

Ironically, it is the local teenage outcast, Joni Jerome (Odeya Rush), who bonds with Timothy.  Born with a large port wine stain on her right shoulder, Joni is an artistic young woman who easily relates to Timothy's "otherness" and assures him that he's not the only child who is "different."

The Odd Life of Timothy Green features some nice cameos by Lin-Manuel MirandaM. Emmet Walsh, and Lois Smith. Diane Wiest scores strongly as Bernice Crudstuff (Cindy's ill-tempered boss at the Pencil Museum). Even though some bicycling images evoke memories of 1982's E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is quite irresistible. Here's the trailer:

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The first Broadway show my parents took me to see was 1955's Plain and Fancy. Set in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, the show contrasted the lifestyles of supposedly sophisticated New Yorkers with the simpler and more humble Amish lifestyle. What impressed me the most was seeing an automobile drive across the stage. Had I known better, I would have paid more attention to the soprano singing the role of Hilda Miller.

The following year, Barbara Cook lit up the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's operetta, Candide, while singing Cunegonde's fiendishly difficult aria, "Glitter and Be Gay". In 1957, Cook co-starred opposite Robert Preston as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. In 1963, I had the great fortune of seeing her in two performance of She Loves Me, the Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical that become a cult phenomenon.

Although I missed her performances as Liesl Brandel in The Gay Life, Molly Tobin in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, and Anna Leonowens in The King and I, I did manage to catch Barbara Cook as Magnolia Hawks in Show Boat, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Carol Deems in the ill-fated Sammy Fain musical, Something More!

Cook's sweet, lyrical soprano led to her being typecast as an ingenue (a role she joyously mocked in David Zippel's irreverent "The Ingenue Song"). What many people took for granted was the lustrous sheen and vocal health of Cook's voice. Watch her appearance opposite Keith Andes in this clip from a 1956 television production of Harold Arlen's 1944 musical, Bloomer Girl.

Known worldwide for her interpretation of songs written by Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin,  Rodgers and HammersteinMeredith WillsonJule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, the recipient of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors has been featured in 18 original Broadway cast and studio cast albums, 21 solo CDs, and two made-for-television productions (Bloomer Girl and Babes in Toyland).

The concept of maintaining one's vocal health is a life-long concern for most singers. Some, like Maria Callas and Renata Scotto, discover that, by the time they have developed the knowledge and experience to know how to interpret music and breathe life into a lyric, their voice may have started to develop a fearsome vibrato or strident wobble. Some (like Alice Ripley) leave their voice in tatters; others turn to directing or coaching.

Few lyric sopranos are still performing before adoring audiences at the age of 85 with their voice in relatively good health. Those who have witnessed Barbara Cook teach a master class have watched her help young singers reach for the truth in a lyric and imbue a song with genuine emotion. An artist of great self awareness, Cook doesn't hesitate to comment on changes in the way she has sung a song like Stephen Sondheim's Losing My Mind over the years.

Many singers who are a fraction of Barbara Cook’s age wish they could sing with the wisdom, phrasing, and musical intuition of an artist whose voice has maintained its sweetness and purity for many years. Listen to her (at the age of 73) singing "Ice Cream" during a 2000 concert in Melbourne, Australia.

As she nears her 85th birthday, Cook's new show, “Let’s Fall In Love,” is built on songs she has never sung before, ranging from Hoagy Carmichael’sThe Nearness of You” to the Dan Hicks classic, “I Don’t Want Love.” Blessed with some great arrangements by Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, Cook’s artistry links “House of the Rising Sun” with “Bye Bye Blackbird” in an astonishing new way. She brings unbridled passion to “Georgia On My Mind” and her delicious sense of mischief to “Makin’ Whoopee” (a song made popular by Eddie Cantor) in 1928.

In her show, Cook lavishes her voice on Ram Ramirez’sLover Man” and Ben Oakland’s “If I Love Again” in ways that will leave younger artists in awe. Ending her performance at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room with the purest and simplest rendition of John Lennon’sImagine” you will ever hear, Barbara Cook showed the audience that she can still perform the American songbook with a grace, authority, and authenticity possessed by no one else. An avowed YouTube addict, she also gave her fans some handy tips on hidden treasures.