Monday, May 23, 2016

On The 21st Century

It's easy to sit back and wallow in nostalgia. When it comes to the literature of musical theatre, it's tempting to drift back into the emotional security of such giants as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Cy Coleman, and Leonard Bernstein (as well as such famous songwriting teams as George & Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz, Charles Strouse & Lee Adams, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt, and Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick). However, as composer John Kander notes:
"When Cabaret happened, Fred Ebb and I had done one show together, Flora the Red Menace. We learned that the important thing is to create what matters to you and what interests you. This is what I will always remember. Hal Prince said, ‘Whatever happens, we will meet the next day in my apartment and talk about the next piece.’"
Instead of looking back 50, 60, or 70 years, let's start with the turn of the 21st century and think about the important contributions to the art form that have occurred since 2000.

Blockbuster hits include 2001's The Producers and Urinetown: The Musical, 2002's Hairspray, 2003's Avenue Q and Wicked, 2005's Billy Elliot: The Musical, Jersey Boys, and Monty Python's Spamalot, 2009's American Idiot, 2011's Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, 2014's An American in Paris, and 2015's Hamilton.

Shows which did well financially, toured extensively, and/or did well in regional theatres include:

Shows which may have been hailed artistically but did not fare well at the box office include 2001's Jerry Springer: The Opera, 2002's Sweet Smell of Success, 2003's Caroline or Change, 2008's Road Show and A Catered Affair, 2013's The Bridges of Madison County, 2015's AllegianceTuck Everlasting, and It Shoulda Been You.

Bay area audiences were recently treated to two magnificent productions of shows by respected songwriters which nevertheless failed to become big hits. One examined a relationship from start to finish by following its leads down opposing chronological paths. The other documented the dissolution of a marriage due to drugs, debauchery, and death. Both productions were rapturously received by their opening night audiences.

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Several musicals have traced the evolution of a couple's relationship over a distinct period of time. One of my favorites is Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's 1966 hit, I Do! I Do! (which starred Robert Preston and Mary Martin and was based on Jan de Hartog's 1951 play, The Fourposter, that starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy). Another is Long Story Short (written by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda), a musical adaptation of David Schulner's 2001 play (An Infinite Ache) about a nerdy young Jewish man who moves to Los Angeles and falls in love with an Asian American woman.

Jason Robert Brown (who has written Songs for a New World, Parade, 13, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas, and contributed songs to Urban Cowboy) is an accomplished songwriter with exceptional skills as an arranger and orchestrator. In 1999, Brown's music for Parade won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Original Musical Score. CBS Films has announced plans for a screen adaptation of 13.

Zak Resnick as Jamie Wellerstein in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Brown's two-person song cycle entitled The Last Five Years had its world premiere at Chicago's Northlight Theatre in 2001. Following its New York premiere, the show won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. A cast album starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Renee Scott was released in 2002.

While some might choose to think of The Last Five Years as merely a song cycle, it is so meticulously crafted for the stage that its bare-bones construction is a structural marvel. An extremely economic show to mount, Brown's musical has been performed by numerous regional theatre companies and received several international productions.

Although a film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan was released in 2015, what makes The Last Five Years so fascinating is how, instead of following its two leads on parallel tracks through their relationship, it follows them from a very different perspective.
  • Forward momentum is maintained by Jamie Wellerstein, a talented young Jewish novelist from Spring Valley, New York whose path is followed from his early days of trying to get published through his first meeting with Cathy, the woman who will become his wife and he will eventually leave behind.
  • Reverse momentum starts with Cathy ruefully singing that Jamie's gone and she's "Still Hurting," before moving chronologically backward until Cathy is seen nervously trying to audition for a show.
Margo Seibert as Cathy Hiatt in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If one were to map out the character development in Merrily We Roll Along and A Star Is Born along the two lines of an X-shaped graph, the point where the two lines intersect would correspond to the moment in the The Last Five Years when Jamie and Cathy sing "The Next Ten Minutes" while seated in a rowboat in Central Park.

Jamie (Zak Resnick) and Cathy (Margo Seibert) in a scene
from The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The American Conservatory Theatre recently debuted a new production of The Last Five Years which may be one of the most fulfilling musical theatre experiences I've had in a long, long time. With Zak Resnick as the confident, easygoing Jamie and Margo Seibert as the needier, less talented Cathy, the production was blessed by Kai Harada's impressive sound design and Callie Floor's contemporary costumes.

With music direction by Matt Castle and stage direction by Michael Berresse, the two leads captured the hilariously clumsy, justifiably resentful, and achingly poignant moments in Jamie and Cathy's relationship. Resnick shone in "The Schmuel Song," "If I Didn't Believe In You," and "I Could Never Rescue You" while Siebert brought an exceptional sense of vulnerability to "Still Hurting," "A Summer in Ohio," and "I Can Do Better Than That."

Margo Seibert as Cathy Hiatt in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The combination of Tim Mackabee's movable scrimmed elements with Robert Wierzel's exquisite lighting helped to forge numerous magical moments in which one partner could be seen fading into the background as the other held the audience's rapt attention. With such extremely likeable lead performers (and the composer's phenomenal arrangements providing a musical cushion of great vitality), ACT's production of The Last Five Years became an especially intimate 90 minutes of musical theatre.

Zak Resnick as Jamie Wellerstein in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each hearing of Brown's song cycle continues to amaze and enchant a listener with its emotional variety and contemporary sound. Seeing it come to life in a near-perfect production had me floating on a cloud for several hours after leaving the theatre.

Performances of The Last Five Years continue at the American Conservatory Theater through June 5 (click here to order tickets).

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Over at the Victoria Theatre, the opening night performance of Andrew Lippa's divinely decadent musical, The Wild Party (which had a brief run of 54 performances at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000) was quite deservedly greeted with wild cheering and a foot-stomping ovation. Raucously directed by Jenn BeVard with outstanding choreography by Alex Rodriguez, this production made Kander & Ebb's 1975 Jazz-Age musical, Chicago, seem almost quaint.

James Mayagoitia and Zachariah Mohammed as the D'Armano
Brothers in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Lippa's credits include John & JenA Little PrincessThe Addams FamilyBig Fish, and I Am Harvey Milk (the 60-minute, 12-movement oratorio that was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus along with the Atlanta Gay Men's ChorusDayton Gay Men's ChorusGay Men's Chorus of Los AngelesHeartland Men's ChorusTwin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, and Vancouver Men's Chorus). In my review of I Am Harvey Milk's world premiere, I noted that Lippa's music "struts, sasses, soars, and comes close to breaking hearts before reaching the kind of rousing climax that brings an audience to its feet, roaring with approval." Those words apply equally to The Wild Party.

Based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party focuses on the marital woes of a randy professional clown named Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes) and his equally sex-hungry wife, Queenie (Jocelyn Pickett), who have reached the point in what was once a hump-happy marriage where boredom is starting to dull their relationship. Brooding, alienation, and abusive behavior have started to creep into their daily lives. When their sex starts to feel routine and Burrs insists that "When I called you a lazy slut this morning, that was just a figure of speech," Queenie decides it's time to spice up their marriage.

Paul Grant Hovannes as Burrs in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

It's the Roaring Twenties and, in Queenie's mind, a logical strategy would be to invite their friends over for a big party with the goal of finding a way to humiliate her husband. To her surprise, Burrs (who has an insatiable sexual appetite) readily agrees but things don't go quite the way Queenie had hoped. As the night wears on, her dreams misfire (as does a gun).

Jocelyn Pickett as Queenie in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

The guests Queenie invites like to party hard wherever booze flows freely and cocaine is available. An oversized boxer (Daniel Barrington Rubio) and his raunchy, petite dame (Lizzie O'Hara) have a nice specialty number ("Two Of A Kind") about how opposites attract. A desperately lonely dyke named Madeline True (Kathryn Fox Hart) sings about how much she lusts after "An Old-Fashioned Love Story."

As Burrs keeps drinking, he becomes increasingly sloppy and aggressive as he attempts to put the moves on various women, ranging from the underaged Nadine (Lizzie Moss) to Eddie the boxer's girl, Mae.

Kate (Alexandra Feifers) loves being the life of any party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

When Queenie's rival, the predatory Kate (Alexandra Feifers) arrives at the party with a handsome, somewhat aloof black man (RaMond Thomas) in tow, the evening takes a nasty turn.  Despite being warned by Kate "not to go there," Queenie decides to humiliate her husband by seducing Mr. Black. More than willing to return the favor, Kate sets her sights on the drunk and vulnerable Burrs.

Kate (Alexandra Feifers) and Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes)
in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As the party progresses, Black keeps noticing the physically abusive way Burrs treats Queenie. When he asks her why she stays with a man who obviously doesn't respect her, Queenie can't help but wonder if she enjoys being roughed up by powerful men. By the time the hedonistic party starts to wind down (and people fall asleep in each other's arms), Queenie and Black have ended up in her bed.

RaMond Thomas is the mysterious Mr. Black in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

The next morning, when Burrs awakens next to Kate and discovers his wife in bed with someone else, his jealousy and rage get the best of him. Burrs reaches for a gun, threatening to kill Queenie, Black, or perhaps even commit suicide. A quick move meant to defuse the situation leads to tragic consequences.

Black (RaMond Thomas), Queenie (Jocelyn Pickett) and Burrs
(Paul Grant Hovannes) sing "Make Me Happy" in a scene from
The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As a company that aims to do serious justice to the musicals it produces, Ray of Light Theatre continues to impress and grow its audience with high performance standards, keen attention to musical detail, and rock-solid stage direction. David Aaron Brown's musical direction for The Wild Party was first rate, aided by Theodore J.H. Hulsker's sound design.

With a unit set designed by Erik LaDue, lighting by Joe D'Emilio, and costumes by Melissa Wortman and Sibilla Carini, ROLT's production of The Wild Party pulsed and throbbed with a raw energy that never sagged. In addition to stirring performances by Paul Grant Hovannes (Burrs), Jocelyn Pickett (Queenie), RaMond Thomas (Black), and Alexandra Feifers (Kate), mention should be made of Kathryn Fox Hart's hilarious portrayal of  Madeline, Malakani Severson's dance solo, and the fine work of James Mayagoitia and Zachariah Mohammed as the incestuous dance team, the D'Armano Brothers.

Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes) puts the moves on Mae (Lizzie O'Hara)
in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Performances of The Wild Party continue through June 11 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets).

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