Sunday, July 3, 2016

Can True Love Ever Win?

Puberty has a profound influence on a person's body. Raging hormones, new hair growth, and irrational mood swings upset the normal cycle of child-parent worship as people to start regarding others as alluring objects of affection. Whether adolescents develop crushes on their peers, become infatuated with their teachers, or become obsessed with total strangers, a confusing new set of emotions can inspire everything from puppy love to intense jealousy, from casual flirting to stalking.

In 1964, The World of Henry Orient (starring Peter Sellers) was released in theatres. It was quickly adapted for the musical stage and opened on Broadway on October 23, 1967 with Don Ameche starring as Henry, Sweet Henry.

For those who have been raised on idealistic models of romance (Purity Balls, arranged weddings, or reality television shows like Bridezillas), the process of auditioning and selecting a long-term partner is fraught with obstacles. From cultural differences to questions of trust, skipping down a path to bliss is easier said than done. As Lysander notes in Shakespeare's 1605 comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The course of true love never did run smooth."

Based on Philip Barry's 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, MGM's 1956 movie musical entitled High Society featured songs with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Sung by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, "True Love" became a hit single and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

What youthful hearts consider to be true love can easily be thwarted by unforeseen circumstances. Family feuds (Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story). magic spells (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid) witch's curses and long-forgotten tragedies have the power to destroy a young person's future. Can true love triumph over all?

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In many ways, Beauty and the Beast was inspired by the French folktale, Bluebeard, which was first published in 1697 and has since undergone numerous adaptations (including a dreadfully boring movie by Catherine Breillat). Unlike "enchanted" legends like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty -- wherein the heroine lies in a coma until she is awakened by a kiss from a handsome Prince -- in Beauty and the Beast Belle must show her true love for a young prince who, unbeknownst to her, was once transformed into a horrible monster.

The story as we now know it first appeared as a traditional fairy tale written by Gabriel-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. In 1771, an operatic version of La Belle et la Bete entitled Zémire et Azor was composed by André Grétry. In 1994, composer Philip Glass's operatic adaptation of the story was based on Jean Cocteau's 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête.

In 1991, Disney released a full-length animated adaptation of the story with a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. In addition to earning three Golden Globe Awards, two Academy Awards, and more than $400 million in box office receipts, Disney's Beauty and the Beast became the first of the studio's full-length animated features to be adapted for the musical stage.

Sam Hartley and Brooke Quintana in a scene from
Beauty and the Beast (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

The Broadway version opened on April 18, 1994 at the Palace Theatre and ran for 13 years, closing after a run of 5,461 performances. The important thing to keep in mind when attending a performance of any Disney musical production is that what you are seeing is part of a huge multi-million dollar franchise operation whose vertical integration of product lines includes film, DVD, stage presentations, animated television spin-off series, toys, comic books, and other merchandising spinoffs.

As a result, many in the audience have been carefully indoctrinated with the details of Disney's full-length film. They arrive at the theatre eager to see their favorite moments created live onstage. If they don't always get an exact replica of the animated feature film, that's because (a) animated characters can move and undergo transformations much faster than live actors, and (b) an animated film is chock full of facial close-ups whereas a stage presentation is not.

Stephanie Gray (Mrs. Potts) and Kadence Edwards (Chip) in a
scene from Beauty and the Beast (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

The current touring version of the show recently arrived at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco for a two-week run. I was especially taken with many elements of the production design, especially Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Basil Twist's marvelous puppets. In an all-too-rare occurrence, the sound design by John Petrafesa, Jr. worked exceptionally well in the Orpheum Theatre (where touring shows often encounter a great deal of sound distortion).

The following videos of the original Broadway production offer some insights into the design process that led to the creation of the show's complicated costumes and make-up routines.

Touring productions of a Broadway show (which require easy breakdowns in order to transport the scenery from one theatre to another and load it in within a relatively short time frame) often have to cut corners on sets and costumes. However, the production that arrived in San Francisco was most satisfying, largely due to an ingratiating cast, the stage direction by Rob Roth (whose antics were squarely aimed at pleasing a younger audience) and the choreography by Matt West.

The illusions created by John Steinmeyer (combined with the traveling sets by Stanley A. Meyer and lighting design by Natasha Katz) worked extremely well to keep the storytelling fast and fascinating for the audience.

Matt DaSilvla (LeFou) and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (Gaston) in
a scene from Beauty and the Beast (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Among the principals, Sam Hartley was a sonorous Beast with Brooke Quintana a most appealing Belle. Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek and Matt DaSilva were a strong comedy team in the roles of Gaston and LeFou. Strong support came from Stephanie Gray as Mrs. Potts, Deandre Horner as Chip, Samuel Shurtleff as Cogsworth, Stephanie Harter Gilmore as Madame de la Grande Bouche, Melissa Jones as Babette, and Thomas Mothershed as Belle's eccentric father, Maurice. To my mind, the evening's strongest performance came from Ryan N. Phillips as Lumiere.

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Throughout the past four decades, the Frameline Film Festival has been a prime venue for LGBT filmmakers to show their work to LGBT audiences. Whether through documentaries that chronicle the AIDS crisis, interracial and intergenerational relationships, transgender issues, or Vito Russo's groundbreaking film documenting how gays have been portrayed in cinema over the years (The Celluloid Closet), the growth of LGBT film festivals proudly paved the way for cable channels like Gay TV, Logo TV, Here TV, OutTV, the Gay Cable Network, and the Q Television Network.

As more and more LGBT people graduated from film school and gained access to more sophisticated technology and increased funding, a new genre of narrative shorts and full-length features began to emerge. Today, gay characters and stories can be found in mass media ranging from webisodes on YouTube and Vimeo (Where The Bears Are, The Outs) to dramas and sitcoms on major networks.

Poster art for Akron

From films that take place during the Holocaust (A Love To Hide) to tales of gay families (The Kids Are All Right), from Longtime Companion to Transamerica, LGBT fiction has become increasingly available to the public at large. No longer must plot lines adhere to the kind of formulaic homophobia whereby a gay man has no options other than suicide or a lesbian is doomed to die under a falling tree.

For the longest time, LGBT cinema focused on stories about people struggling to come out (even it meant being ostracized by their families) or coping with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Even if they met someone and fell in love, there was always a black cloud hovering over their relationship (whether due to substance abuse, gay bashing, gender dysphoria, or the stress of leading a double life).

Matthew Frias and Edmund Donovan in a scene from Akron

One of the more refreshing films screened during Frameline40 (subtitled "The king of queer film festivals") was written, directed, and produced by Brian O'Donnell with Sasha King as co-producer and co-director. Set in suburban OhioAkron begins innocently enough as two mothers are seen shopping in a suburban megastore. One woman has two sons; the other has only one child (a chubby-faced boy whose stern gaze misses few details). As they leave the store and begin to pull out of a parking spot, a child suddenly runs in front of one family's vehicle and is hit by their car.

Fast forward 15 years, as the audience watches two affable gay college students "meet cute" during a pickup touch football game. Both men are already out to their middle-class families. Both are fully accepted by their teachers and peers. Both are free from any type of addiction.
  • Benny (Matthew Frias) is a handsome Hispanic hoping to enter medical school. He aces most exams and is the apple of his parents' eyes.
  • Christopher (Edmund Donovan) is a popular freshman athlete who grew up in Akron, but whose divorced mother now lives in Florida.
Matthew Frias (Benny) and Edmund Donovan
(Christopher) in a scene from Akron

When the two students meet (Benny doesn't hesitate to walk right up to Christopher and ask for his phone number), their initial attraction is cemented with text messaging, phone calls, and joint study sessions. Benny brings Christopher home to meet his family, who take an instant liking to him and are delighted that their son has found a new friend. Benny's mother, Lenora (Andréa Burns), doesn't hesitate to ask if his new boyfriend could be "the one."

For older gay men who may have struggled with internalized homophobia, such a blissful courtship may seem like an old-fashioned fairy tale. But there is a secret which must be dealt with. A deep, dark, and horrible secret.

Matthew Frias as Benny in a scene from Akron

As he finds himself increasingly drawn to Benny, Christopher starts having flashback dreams about what happened in the superstore when he was a child. When the two young lovers decide to take advantage of a school break to visit Christopher's mother, Carol (Amy da Luz) recognizes Benny's name and insists on telling her son and his new boyfriend the truth about what happened many years ago. Christopher reacts by accusing his mother of instantly ruining things for him (as usual) by having to make the situation all about her.

Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan, and
Amy da Luz in a scene from Akron

Although Benny insists that the news doesn't bother him, later that night he calls home in tears to inform his mother that he's just learned that Christopher's mother is the woman who accidentally killed his brother. While each family's emotional pain is palpable, the story's resolution is refreshing and rather remarkable.

At this stage of the game, it's a relief to be able to watch a romantic gay film with two sexy leads and a minimum of family dysfunction. Akron deals realistically with an old tragedy that could easily split two lovers (straight or gay) apart. Amy da Luz and Andréa Burns shine as the two mothers, with Isabel Machado appearing as Benny's younger sister, Becca, and Cailan Rose as his friend, Julie. Joseph Melendez has some key moments as Benny's father, David. The two romantic leads give solid performances that are beautifully showcased by Patrick Jordan's appealing cinematography. Here's the trailer:

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