Friday, March 1, 2013

Before The Parade Passes By

On a cold and wintry day back in the 1950s, I put on my mittens and galoshes and stepped outside into a grey-skied winter wonderland. Snow had fallen the previous night and was now more than a foot deep in our driveway and backyard.

A thought suddenly came to mind and, long before anyone would use the term "global warming," I decided to take a proactive stance for the environment. After clearing away the snow in front of our garage door, I rolled up about 16 snowballs and carefully placed them atop the table inside the garage.

Several weeks later, after the weather had improved, I went out to the garage to check on my snowballs. To my utter horror and dismay, they were gone! When I described this tragic loss to my mother, the last thing I expected was to see her double over in laughter.

Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

As one grows older and (hopefully) wiser, one learns that it's impossible to hold onto a kiss, a sunset, or the magnificent vision one had in a dream. While it's easy to recognize the smell of cherry tobacco, bacon on the griddle, or the scent in the air moments after a summer downpour hits a hot sidewalk, it's almost impossible to conjure up the cold, crisp moisture of a snowy day. Or the look on a dog's face as he shakes himself dry.

For many of us devoted to the magic of live theatre, it is the quest for a special kind of moment that keeps us coming back for more. That moment could be:
  • A soprano hitting a fiendishly difficult high note and sitting on it for days.
  • A male ballet star seeming to hover over the stage in the middle of a spectacular leap.
  • The perfectly calculated and yet near miraculous sharing of a thought or emotion between a character onstage and the audience.
  • A musical climax that is at once cathartic, ecstatic, and just short of orgasmic.
In one of the lesser known songs from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle, Stephen Sondheim's lyric captured the fleeting mystery of life and the magic of live theatre.

One of the theatre's great strengths is its ability to combine music, movement, and poetry. Some musical theatre numbers -- Rodgers and Hammerstein's hypothetical "If I Loved You" from 1945's Carousel; Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's intoxicating "Maria" from 1957's West Side Story; and Meredith Willson's declarative "Till There Was You" from 1957's The Music Man -- easily work their way into popular culture. Other, less familiar lyrics vanish into the clouded past. Consider the uncommon grace of this Oscar Hammerstein verse from 1943's Oklahoma!
"Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo a waiting sky.
Out of my dreams and into the hush of falling shadows,
When the mist is low and stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I'll go -- into a dream with you."
Based on the 1953 movie Lili, Bob Merrill's score for Carnival! (1961) was best known for Anna Maria Alberghetti's charming rendition of "Love Makes The World Go 'Round." In the following clip from Anaheim High School's production of Carnival! Natalie Elder sings Lili's first song, the innocent and disarming "Mira."

One of the my favorite "undiscovered" Broadway songs comes from 1961's The Gay Life. With music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz, it was sung by Barbara Cook with a vocal purity and clarity of phrasing that is rarely matched.

In this clip from If It Only Even Runs A Minute, Jill Paice sings the enchanting "Magic Moment," Although the clip from the show is eight minutes long (and contains some hilarious background information about the show's creation and out-of-town tryout), this song epitomizes the kind of incandescent lyricism that can only be achieved in musical theatre.

If one is lucky, certain theatrical moments reach out and grab an audience with their magic. Whether lavishly mounted and backed by tons of money, or performed in a minimalist staging where the audience can almost  touch the actors, these moments encapsulate what people ultimately find so thrilling and memorable about live theatre.

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Late in 2012, a 3D film that deserved to reach a much wider audience was pretty much blown off the map by holiday audiences flocking to see Lincoln, Les Misérables, and Django Unchained. Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, which combines 3D footage of the company's stationary 2011 Las Vegas shows (O, Mystère, Ka, Zumanity, Love, Viva Elvis, and Criss Angel Believe) is as much a feast for the eyes as Julie Taymor's 2007 musical drama, Across the Universe (which was built around a long list of songs written by The Beatles).

Audiences who have attended any of Cirque du Soleil's shows know that they are wildly extravagant, visually overwhelming, jaw-dropping spectacles for which tickets cost a pretty penny. So much happens so quickly in each show that it's difficult for the senses to absorb it all.

Being surrounded by nearly 2,000 people can make it equally difficult to zero in on one moment, stop the action, and smell the musicodramatic roses. As director Andrew Adamson explains:
“We had to find a natural, cinematic way into the world of Cirque. I started thinking about the way Cirque's live shows work. There is a very dreamlike quality about them.-- a thin thread of narrative that weaves in and out of each but allows these acts to exist within the worlds that are created. I thought this movie could do the same thing. I could find a narrative that threads these completely different shows together. What I wanted to do is take the audience to see these shows in a way that they hadn’t seen them before, to get the camera in close, give a different perspective of what these artists do and show that perspective in high speed, slow motion 3D."

By working with James Cameron, Adamson has been able to create something far more extraordinary than the "standard" Cirque du Soleil experience.
  • By opening up each show's orchestrations to a full symphonic score, he has added a huge new musical perspective.
  • By being able to incorporate slow-motion into certain performances, he has been able to stress the lyrical elements of many airborne acrobatic acts.
  • Without hiding any of Cirque's amazing technology or safety devices, he has brought the audience much closer to the performers than they could ever hope to be during a live show.
  • With the careful use of some CGI scripting for the fantasy segments that link the circus acts, he has been able to build a dramatic narrative which captures the poetry and dream-like otherworldliness of Cirque's artistic vision.

As one watches this film one becomes acutely aware of the industrial scope of Cirque du Soleil's empire (which currently has 19 shows running and 11 that have been "retired"), the stunning technological advances it has pioneered in stagecraft, and the amazing talent bank that performs for Cirque on stages around the world.  As Cameron explains:
"The film feels as if you strayed into a circus in a dream. While it starts in this sort of run-down circus, it plays out as discovery of this other dimensional circus world they fall into (which is still very much a circus). There are wires, harnesses, and you see it all -- no effects hiding it. In seeing it, you experience the ingenuity of staging, costume design, the strength and agility of their talent that seem so effortless, so fluid. But the preparation and work that goes into it is anything but effortless. What you see is pure Cirque.

From the beginning, Andrew had a fairly clear vision of what he wanted to do and it continued to evolve. As a producer, I kind of acted as his sounding board. Andrew had to walk a fine line working with such diverse elements from these shows. The goal was to really celebrate the physical artistry of everything Cirque du Soleil is about: the design, the beauty. and the grace of those performances. It was never meant to be about effects but to showcase the raw, pure physical human talent and their amazing ability."

With Cirque du Soleil nearing its 30th anniversary as a theatrical company, it's easy for audiences to feel jaded, as if the creative team of the newest Cirque production is really going to have to work hard to impress them (I've heard such comments year after year). Not only does Cirque du Soleil continue to exceed most audience's expectations, the company never stops experimenting, innovating, and dazzling people with its prowess. I can't recommend Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away strongly enough. It's a magnificent theatrical (as well as cinematic) experience bursting with muscles, magic, music, and a few minor miracles. Here's the trailer:

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Just as some people believe that "size is everything," there are certain audiences who assume that the bigger and flashier the production placed before them, the greater its artistic value. Unfortunately, such is not always the case. Large-scale theatre and opera companies have been known to fill their stages with some whopping artistic turds that left audiences in a state of shock and awe.

Can great theatre be achieved without a multi-million dollar production? Without bombarding audiences with excruciating levels of amplification? Without famous actors? Without large casts wearing expensive costumes?

Yes, it can. For proof, there is no better place to go than Central Works, a tiny Berkeley theatre company that is now celebrating its 23rd season while maintaining some of the highest artistic standards in the Bay area. Having sung this company's praises on numerous occasions, there is always a concern that their "organic" approach to writing and producing a play might fail them. I'm happy to report that, like Cirque du Soleil, they continue to astonish and amaze me.

Poster art for The Grand Inquisitor

Central Works is currently reviving its 2005 production of The Grand Inquisitor with a sense of timeliness that is downright uncanny. When they first produced this play, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who had occupied the office formerly known as Holy Office of the Inquisition) was being elected  to become Pope Benedict XVI. Shortly before this year's opening night, Pope Benedict announced that he would be relinquishing his title  as the leader of the Roman Catholic church. News of his retirement was surrounded by lots of bad press and continued controversy over pedophile priests and corruption in the Vatican.

Forget about trouble in River City. As so many have duly noted, "Exit Benedict."

Julian Lopez-Morrilas as the Grand Inquisitor
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Based on a parable in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last novel (The Brothers Karamazov), The Grand Inquisitor offers audiences a remarkably insightful and riveting look at how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Written by Gary Graves and directed by Jan Zvaifler, the play is a tour de force for the actor (Julian Lopez-Morrilas) in the villainous title role. Set in Seville, Spain during the early 16th century, Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor suffers from paranoid delusions, a severely overinflated sense of self-righteousness, and is the antithesis of what the Catholic church claims to be.

In short, there are voodoo dolls with a greater sense of integrity.

During the course of the play, the Grand Inquisitor must interact with four radically different people (all of whom are portrayed by the talented Michael Gene Sullivan).
  • As the play starts, the Grand Inquisitor reaches out to his servant, Pedro, after suffering some kind of seizure in the Secreto (a room in the Palace of the Inquisition). Pedro informs the Grand Inquisitor that "He" has been spotted in town and that word is spreading that "He" has cured a beggar woman of her blindness.
  • When the woman is brought before him, the Grand Inquisitor cross examines her and accuses her of being a liar and a fraud. She readily admits to faking blindness in order to feed herself but also speaks of the mysterious "He" who has arrived in town.
Michael Gene Sullivan and Julian Lopez-Morrilas
in The Grand Inquisitor (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
  • The Grand Inquisitor's chief torturer is next to enter his chambers.
  • Finally, the mysterious man who everyone else has referred to (identified only as "The Other" in the program) enters the chamber and, while maintaining his silence, acts as a foil to the Grand Inquisitor's agitated and increasingly terrified state. Is "He" truly a man of no importance or is he Jesus Christ, returned to earth? Is "He" really Satan trying to subvert the Grand Inquisitor's authority or is "He" a feverish figment of the paranoid old man's imagination?
Michael Gene Sullivan and Julian Lopez-Morrilas
in The Grand Inquisitor (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

This Central Works production is a magnificent example of what I like to call "The Black Box Theatre of Minimalism." Not only does The Grand Inquisitor offer Bay area audiences two powerful performances in a tiny space that seats only 50 people, this production builds to a riveting dramatic confrontation that is the essence of politically relevant theatre. The writing is lean, mean, and brilliantly executed by Michael Gene Sullivan and Julian Lopez-Morrilas.

Kudos to Gary Graves (who also designed the hellish lighting) and Gregory Scharpen, whose sound design is, as always, electrifying. Midway through the performance, as I watched Julian Lopez-Morrilas writhing in agony on the floor, I leaned against a rail and stopped for a second to think that "Most people right now are at home watching the Oscars. But I'm sitting here at the Berkeley City Club with 40 other people enjoyting a much better show!"

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