Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Women Aging Gracefully -- Or Not

Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to American advertising over the past few decades knows that we live in a youth-obsessed society. From Botox injections to "anti-aging creams," products and services are constantly being hyped that purport to make a person look wrinkle-free and younger than their stated age, However, in a recent sketch, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus toasted and roasted the concept of an actress celebrating her "last fuckable day."

One of the bitter ironies faced by people is that, by the time the mind achieves clarity, wisdom, and knows what it wishes to do with the body, a person's anatomy may have already begun to deteriorate. For some people, the only option is to dull the emotional pain of aging. In 1970, Stephen Sondheim composed a song for the character of Joanne in Company which became a sort of anthem for the late, great Elaine Stritch.

The following year, Sondheim created another anthem for aging actresses when he composed "I'm Still Here" for the character of Carlotta Campion in Follies.

In 1973, Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler examined the follies of growing older through a more bittersweet lens in A Little Night Music. In the show (based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night), Madame Armfeldt explains to her granddaughter that:
"Of course, the summer night smiles. Three times.
The first smile is for the young, who know nothing.
The second is at the fools who know too little -- like Desiree.
And the third is for the old, who know too much -- like me."
Fredrika Armfeldt (Brigid O'Brien) and her grandmother (Dana Ivey)
 share a moment in A Little Night Music (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The American Conservatory Theater is currently offering a new production of A Little Night Music that has been tenderly directed by Mark Lamos with a cast headed by Karen Ziemba as Desiree Armfeldt, Dana Ivey as her mother, and Patrick Cassidy as Frederik Egerman.

Patrick Cassidy as Frederik Egerman in A Little Night Music
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

One of the more subtle charms of A Little Night Music may well be that, as one gets older, one feels a much greater appreciation for the depth and wit of Ingmar Bergman's film, Hugh Wheeler's script, and Stephen Sondheim's songs. Tiny details which may have easily skipped past one's eyes during earlier encounters with the show (I first saw A Little Night Music in late 1974 at the Curran Theatre with Jean Simmons as Desiree and Margaret Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt) suddenly resonate in surprisingly poignant ways.

Margaret Hamilton and Jean Simmons in the
1974 national tour of A Little Night Music

ACT's production has some noticeable strengths, particularly Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba as a sadder-but-wiser Desiree Armfeldt (a second-class actress who has been touring Sweden's provincial theatres for years and grown weary of life on the road). Wearing a wig that made her look oddly frumpy (despite the elegance of her costumes), one got the feeling that Desiree was determined to avoid the tired theatrical cliché of becoming someone who stayed too long at the fair.

In her attempts to share her feminine assets with two men, it quickly became obvious that her dashing lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, was simply not up to the task. Malcolm is meant to be a hot-tempered and extremely jealous military buffoon (who is married to the bitterly self aware and pathetically co-dependent Charlotte but carrying on an affair with Desiree). While some were quick to lay the blame for any opening night problems on the actor playing the role (Paolo Montalban), I thought the actor's weakness was primarily due to a directorial choice by Mark Lamos.

Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Paolo Montalban) and Desiree
Armfeldt (Karen Ziemba) share a tense moment in
A Little Night Music (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The key to showing audiences what a pompous fool Carl-Magnus really is requires not playing the character as a cartoon, but to play him straight (thus letting his vanity, insecurity, macho muscularity, and rash behavior speak for themselves). The way Lamos conceived the character was more of a military caricature (sort of like a prancing dragoon guard yanked from the chorus of Gilbert & Sullivan's 1881 comic opera, Patience).

Contrast Montalban's nervous performance with the poignancy of the clearly-defeated Charlotte (Carl-Magnus's wife) who, despite delivering some of the best zingers in the script, knows how pathetically she has been left to drown in a sea of hopelessness and helplessness.  Emily Skinner's magnificent (and magnificently enunciated) portrayal of Charlotte struck all the right notes with the frustrated fury of a woman scorned.

Emily Skinner as Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although there were some strong performances in supporting roles -- Marissa McGowan as a lusty Petra, Laurie Veldheer as a clueless Anne Egerman, Justin Scott Brown as the horny, frustrated young Henrik Egerman, Michael McIntire as the servant, Frid, and Brigid O’Brien as Desiree's daughter, Frederika --  I'll admit to feeling uncomfortable with the costuming choices for the quintet (Christine Capsuto as Mrs. Nordstrom, Brandon Dahlquist as Mr. Lindquist, Annemaria Rajala as Mrs. Anderssen, Andres Ramirez as Mr. Erlanson, and Caitlan Taylor as Mrs. Segstrom).

Whereas these performers usually appear in period costumes (some are identified as neighbors of Frederik Egerman's, their initial appearance in theatrical petticoats just didn't feel right. Mine was purely a gut reaction to a costuming choice made by Candice Donnelly to accompany Riccardo Hernandez's abstract set designs.

The costumes for the opening quintet in A Little Night Music
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Whatever reservations I may have about costuming choices quickly faded in light of the show's brilliant construction -- a role model in three-quarter time for students of musical theatre. Performances of A Little Night Music continue through June 21 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
In 1975, Albert and David Maysles rocked documentary cinema circles with their release of Grey Gardens, a film which showed two relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Lee Radziwill living in poverty in East Hampton.  The two women (both named Edith Beale) were eccentric characters who seemed to live in a world of their own, surrounded by an army of cats and occasional delusions of grandeur.

Following its release, Grey Gardens developed a loyal following and, in 2010, was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. But the saga of Grey Gardens didn't stop there.

By 2006, the documentary had furnished the source material for a new musical whose book had been written by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. Following a two-month run at Playwrights Horizons (with a cast headed by Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson), a revised version opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where it ran for more than 300 performances, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won three.

The creative team for the musical version of Grey Gardens hit on an interesting concept. Act I would take place in Grey Gardens in 1941, when the young Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. was a potential suitor for "Little Edie" and Jackie and Lee Bouvier were just little girls. The role of Edith Bouvier Beale would be sung by the same actress who, in the second act, would portray "Little Edie" in 1973.

Edith Bouvier Beale (Heather Orth) leads Jackie and Lee Bouvier
in a song in Act I of Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

The Custom Made Theatre Company is currently offering the San Francisco premiere of Grey Gardens in a production that has been lovingly directed by Stuart Bousel and blessed with the great Heather Orth heading the cast. My first experience with Orth onstage was in Broadway by the Bay's 2011 production of Gypsy. Since then, I've taken great delight in watching Orth perform with Ray of Light Theatre and 42nd Street Moon.

The reputation of "Big" Edie as "The Body Beautiful" poses problems
for a young Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Nathan Brown)
in Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

However, Orth's performance in Grey Gardens is a stunning artistic achievement, made even more powerful by the intimacy of the performance space and the rock-solid power of Orth's voice. It's not often that I would characterize someone's performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy as a stepping stone to a portrayal of even greater depth that brings to life a pathetically damaged woman who has been left behind by life's circumstances.

Orth's portrayal of both Edith Bouvier Beale (in 1941) and ”Little” Edie Beale (in 1973) deserves that kind of praise. Whether surrounded by Kennedy relatives or by a horde of hungry cats, it is "a real piece of work." As director Stuart Bousel notes
"Heather Orth is a divine talent, a great human being, an excellent spirit, and one of the most committed performers I've ever had the privilege to work with. She carries this monster of a show on her back and somehow manages to make it look nearly effortless, She is by turn funny and tragic, but to me it's the obvious direct connection between voice and heart that is so astounding to witness. To get to hear her work this magic in such an intimate venue has made this one of the most rewarding rehearsal and preview processes of my life."
"Little" Edie Beale (Heather Orth) sings "Wintertime in a
Summer Town" in Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In Act II, Orth's characterization of "Little" Edie Beale finds a fierce complement in Mary Gibboney's portrayal of her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale who, by that point, was 77 years old and growing increasingly feeble. Nevertheless, Gibboney manages to take a comic number like "Jerry Likes My Corn" and hit it out of the park.

Mary Gibboney as Edith Bouvier Beale in Act II of
Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In supporting roles, Juliana Lustenader scores strongly in Act I as "Little" Edie with Daniel Solomon doubling as the women's devoted servants (Brooks Sr. and Brooks Jr.). Nathan Brown does admirable double duty as a young Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. and the hippie gardener who tries to help out at Grey Gardens during the 1970s. David Aaron Brown is particularly interesting as Georg Gould Strong, the women's accompanist and gay friend (as well as the show's musical director) while Dave Sikula doubles as J.V. "Major" Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale.

"Little" Edie (Heather Orth) leads the ensemble in "The House We
Live In" from Act II of Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

I would emphatically recommend this production to anyone interested in musical theatre. This is one of the rare instances wherein a show's lyrics outshine its musical score. What's more, the lyrics can be clearly heard throughout the evening (unlike my recent experience at another small theatre company which felt compelled to bludgeon its audience with overamplified sound).

For those who are used to attending live opera, the sound of the unamplified human voice has a warmth, strength, and humanity which is most remarkable. For those who are not used to hearing the beauty of the human voice -- and the nuance it can bring to a song without being defeated by amplification -- the chance to hear Frankel & Korie's songs sung in a natural voice in a performance space with three-quarter-round seating is a unique and all too rare opportunity. Minus any kind of proscenium arch, Custom Made's production of Grey Gardens offers one of the few chances for audiences to "lean in" and share the evening's intimacy with the performers.

Mother (Mary Gibboney) and daughter (Heather Orth) in
Act II of Grey Gardens (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Bottom line? Heather Orth is a force of nature whose performance no one should miss. Performances of Grey Gardens continue at the Custom Made Theatre Company through July 5 (click here to order tickets).

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