Thursday, September 13, 2012

Music at the Fringe

Because the productions showcased in each year's San Francisco Fringe Festival are chosen on a lottery (rather than a juried) basis, each season is bound to contain a few surprises. Perhaps the biggest one so far this year has been the quality of music.

There's a great deal of music on display at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival, including Alaska Leavin': The Musical, Antipodes, Journey of Light: A Glo-Opera, Weightless, and the Kingdom of Not performing a The Wounded Stag and other Cloven-Footed Tales of Enchantment. And those are the attractions I couldn't even squeeze onto my calendar.

As someone who is less oriented toward rock'n'roll, I chose the Fringe musicals that featured "older" styles of music.  After all, how often does one get the opportunity to watch someone belt out show tunes while accompanying herself on a hula hoop?

Mary Knoll stars in To Be Merry

Our Lady of the Hula Hoop turned out to be Mary Knoll, one of the forces behind The People's Theatre (a small troupe based in San Francisco). Her one-woman show entitled To Be Merry maintains a firm grip on Auntie Mame's philosophy that "life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Whether describing how her father taught her how to project her voice, or how her gay brother dealt with his AIDS diagnosis, Knoll presents herself as the singing, dancing, and hooping version of the Energizer Bunny. Not only is her enthusiasm infectious, it makes no difference if her pitch wavers while singing. She's determined to keep her audience entertained for better for worse, in tales of sickness as of health. Here's a sample of her work:

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Four years have passed since I saw Wayne Harris perform his one-man show, May Day Parade, at The Marsh. A gifted storyteller and former music teacher who began his career as a horn player in a St. Louis drum-and-bugle corps, Harris is one of those performers who gives audiences a sweaty 110% whenever he is onstage.

When I first saw him perform, I was bowled over by the carefully-crafted nuances, intensely personal speech cadences, and fine layers of depth that he brought to his extended family and loving cast of characters. As a result, I was eager to see what his newest venture, Tyrone "Shortleg Johnson" and Some White Boys might have to offer.

Set in 1967 on the set of a television dance show for teenagers, Harris performs only one role in this show: an angry, frustrated blues singer caught in a difficult period of transition Not only is the music industry changing too fast for Tyrone to maintain his foothold, he's developed a reputation as a "difficult" artist after a mini-scandal in which he got a little too drunk and started fondling a woman's breast. As Harris explains on his website:
"I first met 'Shortleg' when I was having a rum and seven at a undisclosed blues bar in East St. Louis. He was trying to wait out some fellow card players who were hanging out in the parking lot hoping to catch up with him for some gambling debts. He was pretty wasted, and mumbled on and on about his mother, Gert, and the hair salon she ran that was a front for a numbers racket. H claimed to be a blues singer, but could only remember the words to 'Oh, Do You Know The Muffin Man?' Though I was very impressed with the many variations of 'Muffin Man' with which he entertained the patrons in the bar that night, I did not think I would see or hear of him again. Looking at the guys waiting for him in the parking lot also convinced me that Tyrone may not be long for this world."
Storyteller Wayne Harris

Mark Kenward, who is directing Tyrone "Shortleg" Johnson and Some White Boys notes that:
"Wayne has a seemingly effortless way of entrancing people through cadence, observation, hyperbole, and a generous availability to the audience. In other words, he’s a damn good storyteller. For the past five years Wayne and I have played in a rock & roll band (The InTones) with some other friends. Just gigging around, playing a mix of R&B, rock, and country. I play guitar, serve as musical director, and Wayne sings. Over time, he has adopted the stage persona of Tyrone -– a crusty & lascivious old blues singer. Even at the parties and fundraising events that our band was playing, people seemed to love Tyrone, so we began to dream of putting him into a more theatrical context.

We began to think about all those old blues musicians who found themselves sharing the stage with young white musicians back in the 1960s, a time when young black people were turning away from the blues, but the hippies and others were embracing (co-opting?) the blues. This created a lot of internal conflict for blues musicians. On the one hand they were more popular than ever, but they were playing for audiences whose life experiences didn’t have a lot to do with where the blues comes from. So we created a set of circumstances that has Tyrone on stage with a bunch of essentially amateur white musicians, and Tyrone ain’t happy about that! Of course, there is a way in which the blues is universal. Ultimately a connection is bridged between Tyrone and his back-up band of 'hippies.'”
Wayne Harris singing the blues

While the television dance show's director tries to cope with technical difficulties, Tyrone starts sipping booze from his flask, waxing nostalgic about whorehouses he has known, trying to get some dirty-sounding music from a six-piece band comprised of white musicians, grabbing his crotch for effect while singing the blues, and occasionally trying to intimidate the youngest member of the band (whom he likes to address as "Baby Boy").

Tyrone, however, has met his match with the brilliant casting of 18-year-old Jeremy Goodwin as the band's lead guitarist. A gifted musician (whose father plays saxophone in the show), young Goodwin exhibits the innocence of Stan Laurel, the shy inner steel of Jesse Eisenberg, and the stone-faced detachment of Buster Keaton hiding behind an angelic complexion. If he ever decides to go into comedy, he will be a great straight man for some comedian.

In Harris's new show Goodwin plays guitar dutifully (and effortlessly) as Harris struts and sweats his way through such old time, down and dirty numbers as "Wang Dang Doodle", "Don't Start Me Talkin':, and "Back Door Man." Other members of the band include Steve Ekstrand, Jeff Weinmann, Richard Trafford-Owen, and Dennis Aquilina.

Hopefully, Tyrone "Shortleg Johnson" and Some White Boys will get a longer run at some Bay area venue. The music's hot, Harris is in fine form, and many members of the audience will find it difficult to take their eyes off Jeremy Goodwin's silent, but riveting Baby Boy.

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The recent world premiere of Laura Schellhardt's drama, Upright Grand, down at TheatreWorks did a beautiful job of showing how a piano can become a beloved member of a family. A recent video in The New York Times about old pianos are being carted off to the junkyard drew anguished sighs from many readers.

Anyone who has attended a concert or master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is acutely aware of the huge number of young Asians hoping to embark on professional music careers. Amy Chua's controversial bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, shone a spotlight on the type of mother who runs her home like a drill sergeant.

Much of the stereotypical tiger mother's criticism and punishments are driven by a fierce desire for her children to have better opportunities in life than what she experienced in her youth. The insistence that her child must outshine all others (whether in sports, music, dance, medicine, or financial success) is backed by the best of intentions.

Poster art for Legacy of the Tiger Mother

As everyone knows, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Legacy of the Tiger Mother is an intriguing one-act musical by Angela Chan and Michael Manley that isn't afraid to grab a tiger mother by the tail and whirl her around in the air. Its promotional material states:
"Got Mommy Issues? Join us on a musical journey with Lily, a first generation Chinese immigrant, and her daughter Mei as they endure the trials and tribulations of old school parenting in a new country. Like many Chinese, Mei and her mom Lily consider the piano the gateway to success, pushing their children to the limit, striving for perfection at every opportunity. But at Mei's daughter Kim's piano recital, Mei clashes with Lily over how much is too much parenting. Mei must decide for herself what is the perfect balance of mixing the old with the new and still meet her mother's approval. East meets West in this funny, irreverent, and moving story about a mother, a daughter, a piano, and tough love, Asian style."
Lynn Craig and Satomi Hofmann in Legacy of the Tiger Mother

Directed by Lysander Abadia,with Angela Chan performing on an electronic piano, Legacy of the Tiger Mother runs the gamut from the Suzuki method of piano exercises to the Moonlight Sonata. In the following clip, Celeste Lero and Christine De Chavez rehearse the hilarious "Lazy White Children" number for the Las Vegas production of Legacy of the Tiger Mother.

It's a rare treat to hear a classically-trained pianist performing at a Fringe Festival. Chan and Manley have done a spectacular job of showcasing the unyielding quirks of a mother for whom first prize is never a sufficient achievement for her daughter if the piano competition is also awarding a grand prize. After all, what about her daughter's rivals? What about keeping face?

Although Legacy of the Tiger Mother doesn't hold back on depictions of maternal guilt tripping (or the failure to tell a child that she is loved), it doesn't shy away from Asian-specific cultural nuances while cross-referencing the confusion engendered in an older generation's attempts to cope with a severe clash of cultures.

As performed by Satomi Hofmann (Lily) and Lynn Craig (Mei) with Angela Chan at the piano, Legacy of the Tiger Mother proved to be a genuine crowd pleaser. Some laughs were coated with the pain of recognition, but as the old Levy's Rye Bread marketing campaign advised "You don't have to be Jewish......"

Poster art for Legacy of the Tiger Mother

While Legacy of the Tiger Mother has a solid future at Fringe Festivals around the world, I have a hunch it would do equally well on the performing arts calendars of music conservatories. The fact that Chan (who has a solid background in musical theatre) recently premiered Summer Camp: The Musical in Las Vegas offers audiences solid assurance that this won't be her only creative triumph.

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