Friday, March 25, 2016

Cramming As Much Action Onstage As Possible

Part of the appeal of musical theatre is its potential for wowing audiences with spectacle. From Freddy Wittop's costumes in Hello Dolly's "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and Cecil Beaton's contribution to the "Always Mademoiselle" fashion show in 1969's Coco, to Florence Klotz's showgirl costumes for the infamous "Loveland" sequence in 1971's Follies, costume design has been an important element in creating memorable stage experiences.




Back when Ed Sullivan used to boast about having "a really big show," he was frequently referring to the lineup of talent for that evening's broadcast.


One often looks to the opera world for really, really big shows whose mammoth sets, large choruses, and crowd of supernumeraries fill a stage. Whether one thinks of Franco Zeffirelli's finale to Act II of Puccini's La Bohème or the final moments of Robert Carsen's staging of Boito's Mefistofele, the ability to fill a stage with spectacle and sound (without creating a traffic jam) is an acquired skill.




Lotfi Mansouri (the former General Director of the Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera) had a curious reputation as a stage director. For better or for worse, Mansouri was often described as a "traffic cop" because of his ability to move large numbers of people around a stage while staying on top of a musical score. Although many people immediately think of the Triumph March from Verdi's Aida ("Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside") as the prototype for handling operatic crowd scenes -- especially in outdoor venues like Rome's Verona Arena -- few have ever matched the spectacle of 1998's staging of Puccini's Turandot at the Forbidden City in Beijing.




Depending on the size of a particular stage, it's easy to add more people to create a sense of greater spectacle. But what happens when a design team needs to downsize a production in order to fit a big show into a theatre with limited (or no) fly space? How does one create the same sense of excitement on a smaller stage? If your name is John Doyle, you can transform a mammoth show like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street into to a chamber opera by eliminating the chorus, the orchestra, and having the actors perform on instruments when they are not singing.

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When Miss Saigon premiered in London September 20, 1989, the new musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby, Jr. quickly became a source of controversy. Loosely based on Puccini's 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon's libretto moved the action to Saigon and Bangkok in the 1970s.

Two years later, when Miss Saigon landed on Broadway, the discussion about updating Puccini's opera was quickly overshadowed by talk of the mechanical helicopter which was a focal point of Kim's nightmare and the casting of a Caucasian actor (Jonathan Pryce) in a role that many felt should have been cast with an Asian American actor. With Broadway by the Bay presenting Miss Saigon some 25 years after its American premiere, I found it fascinating to see how changes in stagecraft and society have affected this award-winning musical.


The long sea voyage from Ho Chi Minh City through the South China Sea, into the Gulf of Thailand and along the Cambodian coast until Kim, Tam, and The Messenger reach Bangkok was beautifully realized with the help of Steven Channon's projections and Michael Oesch's lighting. Happily, today's technology allowed video projections and digital mapping to simulate the helicopter rescue without making three minutes of stagecraft the highlight of Act II.

Desperate Vietnamese hope to escape on a helicopter in Miss Saigon
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

More importantly, with Anthony Rodriguez III doing a brilliant job as The Engineer, there was no question of cultural appropriation in the casting of this key role. In addition to his numerous dramatic moments, Rodriguez absolutely nailed "If You Want To Die In Bed" and "The American Dream."

Kim (Danielle Mendoza) watches as her son (Nicolas Maggio)
gives The Engineer (Anthony Rodriguez III) a kiss in
Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Working with sets designed by Kelly James Tighe  and costumes by Leandra Watson, director Jasen Jeffrey kept the action moving at a fairly rapid pace. Nicole Helfer's choreography helped bring the appropriate levels of sleaze to the scenes where Asian prostitutes of both sexes were plying the oldest profession in the world.

The Engineer (Anthony Rodriguez III) is a Vietnamese pimp
in Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Can a person find true love in the midst of so much poverty and chaos? Can a desperately poor young woman try to maintain her integrity? Danielle Mendoza's Kim and Terence Sullivan's full-throated Chris took on the modern-day equivalents of Cio-Cio-San and Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, excelling in their duets ("Sun and Moon," "Last Night of the World") while Sullivan did a splendid solo job with "Why, God, Why?"

Chris (Terence Sullivan) is the American soldier who falls in love with
Kim in Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Danielle Mendoza as Kim in Miss Saigon
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

As director Jasen Jeffrey, notes:
“One of my earliest memories of live theater was attending San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, on which the story of Miss Saigon is based. At its core, this is Kim’s love story. We first see her fall in love with Chris. Hope is empowered by that love and briefly lifted from the poor and tragic conditions of her own life. When the realities of war separate them, we then experience a mother’s fearless and unconditional love for the son she believes deserves a better life than she experienced. She pursues that outcome with a visceral drive and shows us the true strength of the human spirit. I have created a narrative that does not politicize these events, but allows us to see the common humanity not only in these characters, but in the parallels that are present in today’s global society.”
Tam (Nicolas Maggio) meets his father (Terence Sullivan) in a scene
from Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

John (Aaron Grayson) sings about the plight of the "Bui Doi" in
Act II of Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin) 

It's important to note several crucial differences between Miss Saigon and its source material:
  • In Puccini's opera, the United States is not at war with Japan; in Miss Saigon it is a full participant in the Vietnam War.
  • In Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton is a much bigger coward than Miss Saigon's Chris.
  • In Miss Saigon, Kim has a fiery confrontation with Chris's wife, Ellen; in Madama Butterfly, a more tepid confrontation occurs between Kate Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San's servant, Suzuki.
Kim (Danielle Mendoza) berates Ellen (Catherine Brady) in a scene
from Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

From a musical standpoint, Broadway by the Bay's staging was quite strong. The two leads received solid support from Aaron Grayson as John and Catherine Brady as Ellen,with Brian Palac bringing a healthy tenor voice to the role of Thuy.  Nicolas Maggio was appropriately adorable Kim's son, Tam.

My only disappointment was with Jon Hayward's sound design, which tended to distort a great deal of the dialogue and singing. As much as I enjoyed the performance, I found myself wishing someone in the Bay area would stage Schönberg and Boublil's 1996 musical theatre piece, Martin Guerre (which has always impressed me as having a stronger musical score).

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What can be done when a play revolves around an iconic contact sport and requires a great deal of simulated action in order to get the audience in the mood? Minus the ability to have a full-length football field crammed onto the stage of a relatively small theatre, a director can make sure that drummers are drumming, runners are running, and tacklers are tackling until a sad and noticeably subdued man comes onstage in a wheelchair.

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) is forced to watch the reply of the moment
he was injured in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Gilbert and Sullivan's Pooh-Bah might dismiss this as "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." But in the case of Andrew Hinderaker's thrilling new play, Colossal, that's the whole point of the evening.

First produced in a National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere" at the Olney Theatre Center, Colossal has since been presented by the Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Dallas Theatre Center, Company One Theatre, and Southern Rep Theatre. The San Francisco Playhouse's West Coast premiere of Colossal has been beautifully directed by Jon Tracy with Keith Pinto providing dance choreography, Dave Maier providing stunt choreography, and Alex Hersler, Zach Smith and Andrew Humann acting as the trio of drummers responsible for building the rhythm and maintaining the throbbing pulse of Hinderaker's hypermasculine "Concerto For Percussion, Helmets, and Shoulder Pads With a Crippled Soloist."

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) meets with his physical therapist (Wiley 
Naman Strasser) in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Faced with the challenge of writing a drama that would intimidate any theatre company whose artistic director might flinch at its controversial themes and physical demands, Hinderaker decided to go for broke. As the playwright explains:
“We have general assumptions about how big a cast is going to be, what a theater space is going to look like, or what an actual play looks like. A lot of times, we’ve gotten to a place in the theater world where it’s not a choice, it’s a default. What was so exciting to me about this challenge was that it really gave me the permission to ignore every part of me that is going to have that knee-jerk reaction of ‘Oh, nobody will ever do this’ and to just let all of that go.”
A critical moment in Mike's life is revisited in Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In a moment when the National Football League is attempting to man up and confront the horrifying realities of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Hinderaker puts the following issues front and center stage:
Marcus (Cameron Matthews) and Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck)
lead their teammates in football practice in a scene from Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In order to grasp the gravity of the situation, it's best to understand that Hinderaker's hero started out as the son of a mini-celebrity. His father, Damon (Robert Parsons), is the founder of a renowned modern dance company who taught his son that a person's body should be treated like a temple.

After learning the basic principles of modern dance from his father, Mike suddenly developed an interest in trying out for his college football team. Horrified by his son's betrayal of everything he had taught him, Damon issued an ultimatum which forced Mike to choose between football or his family. Not only did Mike choose football, he fell in love with his co-captain, Marcus (Cameron Matthews), a much more traditional jock who preferred to keep their sexual activities on the down low.

Marcus (Camerone Matthews) and young Mike 
(Thomas Gorrebeeck) are two football players in love 
in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Because of Mike's early dance training, he was easily (and quite gracefully) able to avoid being tackled during practice sessions. Whenever his teammates might grumble about his sexual orientation, he wouldn't hesitate to point out that what they were doing on the field looked a whole lot more gay than anything they had accused him of doing.

Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) lifts weights as the older,
crippled Mike watches from a wheelchair in a scene from Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Colossal deftly moves back and forth between the present -- as Mike struggles to make peace with his physical therapist, Jerry (Wiley Naman Strasser) -- and the past, when he was a muscular athlete eager to prove himself on the field and earn the approval of his coach (Dave Maier). Along with the other players on his team (Xander Ritchey, Brandon Leland, Ed Berkeley, Jacob Hsieh, Brian Conway, Travis Santell Rowland), Mike was having the time of his life until a split-second decision shattered his future.

Working on Bill English's grassy unit set, Jon Tracy has done a stunning job of giving his ensemble an opportunity to use the languages of football and modern dance as parallel means of expression. This thrilling production is a perfect example of why NNPN's program of rolling world premieres is such a powerful vehicle for giving a new play more than one chance to reach an audience.

Ed Berkeley, Cameron Matthews, and Thomas Gorrebeeck
in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While Jason Stojanovski, Robert Parsons Wiley Naman Strasser, and Cameron Matthews deliver strongly-defined characterizations, it is Thomas Gorrebeeck's searing and profoundly moving portrayal of Young Mike that anchors the production -- a performance no serious theatregoer can afford to miss. Even if (like me), you're not a football fan, as a piece of rhythmic and muscular theatre, Colossal easily lives up to its name. The fact that it has proven box office appeal should lead to numerous regional productions.

The cast of Colossal trains for an upcoming football game
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of Colossal continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 30 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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