Friday, March 15, 2013

Awash in Nostalgia

Some people believe that hindsight is 20/20. I think it's warped by sentimentality, wishful thinking, and rose-colored glasses. Whether one listens to Betty Buckley singing "Memory" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's long-running musical Cats or Barbra Streisand's version of the title song from 1973's The Way We Were, memory tends to play tricks on clarity.

Most memories are subjective rather than objective. As we age and grow fonder of time gone by, there's a tendency to embellish the highs and sugarcoat the lows. When put into song, nostalgia can come in a variety of flavors. In 1937, Fred Astaire introduced an instant classic written by George and Ira Gershwin for Shall We Dance.


In 1969, Jerry Herman's troubled musical, Dear World, contained this wistful, heartrending gem:


In July 2008, when City Center Encores revived 1955's Damn Yankees with Jane Krakowski  as Lola, the Devil was played by Sean Hayes with a gleefully malevolent yearning for the past.


Recent waves of nostalgia have been coming from opposite ends of the globe. Two documentaries being screened at CAAMFest have a distinctly Asian focus while the return of a beloved jukebox musical is a decidedly all-American affair.

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Anyone who has traveled to Egypt knows how easy it is to spend a day browsing through the stalls in the Khan el-Khalili, the huge souk in Islamic Cairo. As they travel the globe, adventurous tourists seek out restaurants "where the locals eat." Instead of heading to high-priced fashion outlets (owned by multinational corporations with branches in every major city), some prefer to hunt down a local bazaar or farmer's market.


As a followup to 2010's Old Places, filmmaker Royston Tan has created the ultimate travelogue for armchair adventurers. Rather than concentrating on the major tourist sites of Singapore, he has instead chosen to record images of businesses and activities that are fading from his island nation's daily life.

A Chinese opera performer applies makeup in Old Romances

This is a film dripping in personal nostalgia. Whether aimed at a favorite teahouse, dentist, a railroad, or a former crocodile farm, Tan's camera captures memories that are deeply personal for Singaporeans while giving viewers a spectacular tour of his country. Odd voices pepper the narration, from old ladies to the interior designer who describes what it was like to be given a chance to design a playground.

A playground created by an interior designer

From beauty salons whose owners have retired to a bakery specializing in the production of Chinese moon cakes, Tan's film is narrated by people who recall their first date, their service to a local church, or why they always went to a certain restaurant to celebrate special occasions. As the filmmaker explains:
“I received an email recently from a lady who was taking the MRT. As she looked out the train at everything that seemed so familiar, she realized that they were really places that were being lost by the minute. It’s almost as if we Singaporeans are suffering from a societal dementia due to our rapid urban development. With this, I feel the need to archive all the stories and old places. What also triggered me to do Old Romances was the great public response to Old Places and people asking for a sequel. I believe that in every old place, there is always a story waiting to be told. How great it is to have this story told by ordinary Singaporeans from all walks of life.”
One of the puppets from an outdoor children's puppet show

Viewers watching Tan's documentary will be faced with a tough choice. Some of the narration is in heavily-accented English; other parts are in various dialects of Chinese and other Asian languages. Because many of the titles flash by very quickly (or make it difficult to catch all the action taking place in front of the camera), I'd suggest ignoring anything that you can't follow aurally and simply soaking up the sights and sounds of old Singapore. Here's an appetizer.


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Many Americans have seen the devastating effect on a community after a manufacturer closes its plant and relocates its business to take advantage of a cheaper labor market. But what happens when an island culture's bumper crop suddenly loses its value, becomes irrelevant, and the bottom falls out of its economy?

In areas that have been ravaged by floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes there is a feeling of being powerless against the forces of nature.  But in a new documentary by Shasha Nakai and Rich Williamson, viewers discover how an island culture that had become extremely wealthy on the success of its sugarcane industry was quickly reduced to poverty when cheaper sources of sugar were developed in America and other locations.

A farmer from The Sugar Bowl

As director Shasha Nakai recalls:
The idea for this project came from my childhood memories. I was born in Bacolod City (on the island where the film takes place) and I lived there when I was 9 to 13 years old. I have very strong memories of my older brother playing airsoft in an abandoned sugar mill. The smell of decaying molasses, the overgrown train tracks, the personal effects left behind inside the mill -- these were all things that stuck with me. With this project I wanted to embody the haunted feeling I felt as a little girl exploring the abandoned mill. I wanted to express the feelings of loss and abandonment that were so commonplace on the island while also exploring the larger issue of the island’s connection to the outside world. I wanted to present a portrait of a place I hold very dear to me and share it with others. Filming in the Philippines itself was a mentally taxing process. Nicole, Rich, our sound recordist Max, and I  filmed for 12 long days and drove all over the northern half of the island.  Being able to speak Ilonggo fluently was something that definitely gave us an advantage, too."
A descendant of one of the island's sugar barons

The Sugar Bowl does a fascinating job of contrasting the remnants of former wealth with the poverty now common among the inhabitants of Negros. Viewers are introduced to local farmers as well as the aging descendants of local sugar barons. Here's the trailer:


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Jukebox musicals reunite many people with the music of their youth. That's never been the case for me. I grew up in a family that listened to classical music, Broadway show tunes, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and WNEW's Make Believe Ballroom. In college, when I got introduced to opera, it was like developing a grand addiction.

Pop music was the furthest thing from my mind. Except during the summer months, when I worked at  YMCA Camp Fuller By-The-Sea, a sailing camp on Point Judith Pond where I bunked with the waterfront staff.  While I was busily playing recordings of Joan Sutherland singing bel canto arias in my office, everyone else was listening to the latest hits on the radio.

It was only when I was down at the boathouse that I found myself listening to ChicagoThe Beatles and groups like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. As a result, their music remained in the background of my mind. I knew it, was aware of it, but was nowhere as passionate about it as, say, Richard Strauss's recognition scene between Orestes and Elektra. But I was extremely aware of vocal issues, especially the sound of a healthy, well-placed voice.

The "Sherry" scene from Jersey Boys (Photo by;Jeremy Daniel)

When Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in 2005, the musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons made an instant star out of John Lloyd Young (David Norona, who had sung the role during the show's tryout at the LaJolla Playhouse, had to be replaced because of vocal problems). The first national tour launched in San Francisco in December of 2006. At that time, the following video (which includes a lot of Four Seasons memorabilia) was shot backstage for Broadway.com.


The touring company of Jersey Boys roared back into the Curran Theatre this week, bringing with it a thrilling young performer in the role of Franki Valli. If you poke around on YouTube, you'll find videos of Nick Cosgrove doing scenes from Carousel, Shenandoah, and other musicals while at Carnegie Mellon University (where he received his BFA in 2010). In the following clip he is paired with Lee Harrington as the conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, in 1997's Side Show.


Here's Cosgrove during one of his summers spent working at the outdoor MUNY amphitheater in St. Louis:


And, finally, here's Cosgrove performing a song introduced by Dorothy Loudon in 1978's Ballroom.


There's a special reason to include these clips with a review of Jersey Boys. For one thing, they show a young tenor with a remarkable range who is obviously aware of the need to protect his vocal health (Cosgrove confessed in an online interview that he warms up before each performance by vocalizing during a 26-minute hot shower). These clips also show a young singer taking risks (two of these songs were written for women) and developing a sense of versatility that will guide him along his path to becoming an accomplished artist.

Because of the vocal demands on its lead singers, the Jersey Boys company has an alternate covering the role of Frankie Valli. On opening night, the role of Bob Gaudio was sung by the understudy, Tommaso Antico, instead of the usual performer, Miles Jacoby.

Ironically, this happened at exactly the same time that a heated debate about singer cancellations and vocal health was erupting on Norman LeBrecht's blog, Slipped Disc (I urge everyone to read the responses he received from mezzo sopranos Susan Graham and Rosalind Plowright).

Frank Valli (Nick Cosgrove) and Bob Gaudio (Miles Jacoby)
in Jersey Boys (Photo by: Jeremy Daniel)

Directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, Jersey Boys remains a slickly-placed show with superb production values (especially Howell Binkley's lighting design, Steve Canyon Kennedy's superb sound design, and Jess Goldstein's costume design). Its New Jersey-based "local boy makes good" rags-to-riches story provides the driving forward momentum for the evening.

Strong character work comes from Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, John Gardiner as Tommy DeVito, Jonathan Hadley as Bob Crewe, and Kara Tremel as Mary Delgado. Donnie Kehr, Justin Lonesome, Sam Strasfield, and Lauren Decierdo appear in numerous supporting roles.

Michael Lomenda, Nick Cosgrove, Miles Jacoby, and
John Gardiner in Jersey Boys (Photo by: Jeremy Daniel)

The real focus of the evening, however, is on the music and the quartet that made it famous. As I listened to long-time hits like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like A Man," "Bye Bye Baby," "Rag Doll," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," I was fascinated by how thrilling songs we once took for granted sound in retrospect. In a bizarre way, it reminded me of Norma Desmond's comment from Sunset Boulevard ("In those days, we had faces").

An evening of Jersey Boys makes one painfully aware how, compared to many of today's rockers (who sound like they are trying to destroy their vocal cords), back in those days, singers really had voices. Especially Franki Valli.

Performances of Jersey Boys continue through April 28 at the Curran Theatre (click here to purchase tickets). Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Nicholas Lederer said...

George,

I hope you don't mind this off topic question but since you are a former opera blogger I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Two questions if I may:

1. Would you agree with me that Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" is the finest and most addictive of all operas?

2. Does it mystify you that it has never had the impact nor the popularity of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss?

Thanks,

Nicholas