Sunday, September 25, 2016

Saved By The Bell

It's an old gag, but a great one. As the action heats up late in Act I of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a vain Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus learns that the virgin bride he paid for in advance has gone missing and he is to be deprived of a long-anticipated sexual conquest. Furious at the blow to his masculinity, he turns on Pseudolus, a slave impersonating the pimp who negotiated the sale. As he threatens to kill the man who supposedly cheated him of his bride, Pseudolus meekly asks if he can have one final word. "It better be a good one," barks the soldier.

"Oh, it is," replies Pseudolus.  "INTERMISSION!"

Zero Mostel as Pseudolus in the film version of
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Unless you're attending (or writing) a one-act play, first acts can be a bit like an obstacle course. Depending on the nature of the piece (comedy, drama, musical), a certain amount of exposition is necessary to advance the plot. Key characters must be introduced, along with their personal backstories. Sufficient dramatic tension may need to be developed in order to create and sustain suspense. As the old saying goes: "Timing is everything!"

On many occasions an audience can become confused by a first act that leads them on a confusing trek through mountains of trivia. Or, there may not be much spark to the performance. Some people become tempted to leave at intermission and, in all honesty, I can't blame them. If, after 20 minutes, a playwright, director, and cast have not been able to engage an audience, it's possible that no amount of beating a dead horse is going to bring a production to life.

Sitting through abominable performances (like Eleanor) is an occupational hazard. I've often told my guest that it's perfectly okay to leave at intermission if they're bored to tears. Their choice is simple:
  • Will staying for the second act reward them with a dramatic payoff or turn out to be a complete waste of their time? 
  • Will the second act be able to rise above the detritus of a tedious first act or will the production keep sputtering until the final curtain? 
  • Will members of the audience be glad they stayed to the end of the play or keep checking their watches as they pray for a mercy killing?
September witnessed two Bay area stagings of musicals with curious production histories. Even if these shows had regrettably short lives on Broadway, one has had (and the other will soon develop) a loyal following. The important question is: Why?

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In October of 2009, a new musical with book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove and music and concept by Barbara Anselmi was presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals held at Manhattan's New World Stages. The next year, It Shoulda Been You received a reading from the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington followed by fully-staged productions at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey in October 2011 and back at the Village Theatre in the Spring of 2012.

Riding a wave of enthusiastic word of mouth, the show had its Broadway premiere on April 14, 2015 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre but closed four months later after a disappointing run of only 135 performances. Directed by David Hyde-Pierce, It Shoulda Been You had arrived with a solid cast featuring Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, David Burtka, Sierra Boggess, Montego Glover, Lisa Howard, Edward Hibbert, and Josh Grisetti (all bankable names). Although audiences seemed to love the show, box office receipts kept falling.

What happened? Society may have progressed further and faster than the show during the six years it took the creative team to get It Shoulda Been You to Broadway. On paper, the show seemed like a fresh twist on an old formula (or two) in the hands of solid theatrical professionals.
Elizabeth Curtis and Jeremy Kahn in a scene from
It Shoulda Been You (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In many respects, It Shoulda Been You was conceived along the lines of an old-fashioned musical. So what could have gone wrong?
Rebecca Steinberg (Jade Shojaee) and her groom, Brian Howard
(Nathaniel Rothrock) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Center Rep in Walnut Creek recently opened its 2016-2017 season with the West Coast premiere of It Shoulda Been You in a production directed by Marc Jacobs and choreographed by Gia Solari on a handsome unit set designed by Kelly James Tighe with costumes by Maggie Morgan. While the first act worked steadily to lay the groundwork for the plot's contradictions and convolutions, it seemed a bit slow in reaching the big reveal at the end of Act I. By contrast, Act II was solidly entertaining and resonated nicely with the audience. One of the show's clear strengths is how easy it is for members of the audience to relate to the characters onstage.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) is the kind of passive-aggressive Jewish battle axe who pushes her husband and daughters around with the subtlety of a bulldozer. Constantly elevating the needs of her pretty daughter, Rebecca (Jade Shojaee), over the feelings of Jenny (Elizabeth Curtis), her plain and decidedly overweight daughter, she's a bit like Mama Rose without the lure of vaudeville to keep her distracted from reality.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) and her daughter, Jenny
(Elizabeth Curtis) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Judy's spouse, Murray (Brian Herndon), is a classic henpecked Jewish husband. The family's beloved Uncle Morty (Paul Plain) can barely hear what's happening around him despite the use of hearing aids. Aunt Sheila (Suzy Shepard) has survived enough insults from Judy's viper-like tongue that when she gets a juicy bit of gossip with which to return the compliment, she serves it up with flare. Even though Rebecca's "co-maid of honor," Annie Sheps (Mila Ashley) is black, Judy is willing to make believe that her daughter's best friend is also Jewish. For mothers like Judy, denial is never "just a river in Egypt."

As is to be expected, the goyim on the groom's side of the wedding are coping with a different set of issues. Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry) is a lusty drunk who went out of her way to help foster an environment that could turn her son Brian (Nathaniel Rothrock) gay and is crushed that, by his getting married to Rebecca, she will no longer be his best girl. Her husband, George (Richard Frederick), is clumsily trying to learn how to show affection for his son. True to form, he is also insisting on a prenuptial agreement (which sends the bride and groom into a state of panic).

Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry) and her son, Brian
(Nathaniel Rothrock) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Trying to second guess every potential mishap are Albert (Scottie Woodard), the kind of wedding planner who could make gay icons like Johnny Weir and Paul Lynde seem overly butch, and his lunkhead assistant, Walt (Paul Plain). Meanwhile, the bride, groom, co-maid of honor, best man Greg Madison (Jason Rehklau), and Rebecca's best friend, Marty Kaufman (Jeremy Kahn), have all been hiding a huge secret from Brian and Rebecca's parents.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) and Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry)
in a scene from It Shoulda Been You (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Cindy Goldfield and Maureen McVerry have a clear handle on the inherent bitchiness of the two mothers and lace their comic moments with a touch of lemon-flavored acid. With music direction by Brandon Adams, Center Rep's extremely likable ensemble delivers a performance in which the second act is noticeably stronger than the first.

From the moment Jeremy Kahn's Marty leaps up from the audience and announces his plan to stop Rebecca's wedding until the time when he and Jenny realize that they've always loved each other and are willing to explore a relationship best defined by the word "Whatever," his performance continues to energize the proceedings.

Jeremy Kahn as Marty Kaufman in It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In what may be the show's strongest trajectory of character development, Jenny moves from being the put-upon ugly duckling through her personal rage at not being informed of her sister's secret, to the unexpected triumph of finally hearing her mother say she's beautiful when she appears in a wedding gown, ready to take Marty's hand in marriage while Rebecca weds Annie and Brian and Greg tie the knot. As with Shakespeare's comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, the evening ends with three happy couples getting married and a pleasantly surprised audience going home happy.

Although It Shoulda Been You may have had a short run on Broadway, I expect it enjoy a long life in regional and community theatres. Why? The audience can easily relate to the characters onstage, which helps to make this show is a genuine crowd pleaser. Performances of It Shoulda Been You continue through October 8 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

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It's easy to fall victim to an earworm -- a piece of music that lodges in one's memory and refuses to go away. In 1990, when a provocative new musical by Stephen Sondheim premiered, it became a source of controversy for numerous reasons. With a book by John Weidman, Assassins reintroduced audiences to the men and women who attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. First produced at Playwrights Horizons, it also marked the first time Sondheim had premiered a major musical off-Broadway.

In 1993, when the American Musical Theatre of San Jose presented the West Coast premiere of Assassins, the radio ads for the show entranced me. Backed by music that had been orchestrated to sound like a carnival calliope, the melody being used to promote the show proved to be a powerful earworm. Many years passed before I learned that it was a clever arrangement of "Hail to the Chief" (the official Presidential Anthem of the United States).

A similar phenomenon took place in 1984, when the concept album of Chess was released. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by former ABBA musicians Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, one song from the show became an international hit. With its throbbing beat, "One Night In Bangkok" had the kind of popular appeal which quickly found an audience in discos. The irony was that the most popular part of the song was actually the refrain or chorus, rather than Rice's intense lyric for the soloist, Freddy Trumper.

Freddy Trumper (Mischa Stephens) sings "One Night in Bangkok"
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Other than hearing "One Night In Bangkok" innumerable times on the sound system at my gym, my only exposure to Chess was a student production staged by San Francisco State University's adventurous Department of Theatre Arts in November of 2008. It was such an appalling mess that, since I was not reviewing the production, I left at intermission.

San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre recently premiered a new version of Chess as the initial offering of its 2016-2017 season. As Brian Katz (the company's artistic director who also staged the show) writes in his program note:
“If you had any interest in groundbreaking musicals in the 1980s, you definitely had a vinyl copy of the Chess album lying around. As is the way with most concept albums, you probably had no idea what was going on, but invented the plot lines that were obscure and sang at the top of your lungs in your best falsetto. Fast forward 30 years and the actual show of Chess has had a three-year London run, a complete re-tooling for Broadway which then bombed, and has become that show everyone talks about but few have seen. I grabbed a perusal copy of the UK version last year on a whim, thinking it would be fun to finally find out what really happens and found a libretto that confused me even more. It was meandering and full of unnecessary complications.”
Stuart Bousel (Walter) and Martin Bell (Molokov)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 
“Then I read lyricist Tim Rice’s introduction, giving permission to make our own version of this show. He said to cut what we want, rearrange the score as we see fit, and best of all, suggested using the beloved concept album as a guide, saying he sometimes wishes he hadn’t changed a word of it. I am indebted to dramaturg Stuart Bousel for tirelessly listening to and reading every version of the show he could find and putting together this excellent variation. Equally monumental was music director Armando Fox’s task in piecing together this patchwork score and helping us make it a seamless whole.”
Chris Uzelac (Anatoly) and Heather Orth (Svetlana)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Those familiar with the show know that parts of the story were inspired by the exploits of two chess grandmasters (Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov) at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. If the musical is broken down into a game of three-dimensional chess, the plot's three dimensions can be identified as follows:
  • The political tug of war being waged by political operatives from each country -- an American named Walter (Stuart Bousel) and a Russian named Molokov (Martin Bell) -- who are trying to manipulate the players as part of their respective schemes to release captured spies and/or family members that are supposedly being held hostage.
  • The professional competition between the two lead chess players, the egomaniacal, brat-like Freddy Trumper (Mischa Stephens) and the more clinically calculating Anatoly Sergievsky (Chris Uzelac).
  • The tense love triangle involving Freddy, his lover, Florence Vassy (Leah Shesky), and Anatoly as well as the fate of Anatoly's quietly suffering wife, Svetlana (Heather Orth).
Mischa Stephens (Freddy Trumper) and Lea Shesky (Florence
Vassy) in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While many in the opening night audience greeted this new version of Chess with a level of enthusiasm bordering on rapture, I felt more like an outsider at a cult event (or, in the old days, a cocktail party where most of the attendees worked for Pacific Bell). To my mind, Chess is an hugely overrated piece of musical theatre with large patches of sprechgesang and sprechstimme which underwhelm far more often than they entertain (there's a big difference between a musical score that is compelling and one that is relentless). Even with the help of Alan Coyne as the Arbiter and Juliana Lustenader as the TV Hostess, the first act barely got off the ground. Despite Brian Katz's clean direction and Daunielle Rasmussen's energetic choreography, I still think this show is a dud.

In addition to some problems with a follow spot, there were some vocal challenges which lessened the impact of the opening night performance. Mischa Stephens strained to hit some of Freddy Trumper's high notes to a point that was often cringeworthy. I found Lea Shesky's portrayal of Florence oddly monochromatic and dispassionate.

Leah Shesky (Florence) and Chris Uzelac (Anatoly)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The glaring contrast between the quality of their singing and the more accomplished vocal artistry of Heather Orth's Svetlana and Chris Uzelac's Anatoly was impossible to ignore. The larger problem is that a show which has gained most of its popularity from people who have never actually seen it onstage can end up being worshipped as a much greater artistic achievement than it actually is.

During the 1980s and 1990s, musical theatre witnessed the premieres of numerous pop-operas (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon) and rock musicals (Little Shop of Horrors, Starlight Express, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). I would not place Chess very high on that list.

Heather Orth as Svetlana Sergievsky in Chess
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Seeing and listening to Chess in a fully-staged production reminded me why, despite its cult following, it has never been revived by 42nd Street Moon, Encores! or the now-defunct Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles (all three devoted to re-examining "lost" musicals). If anything, experiencing the fully-formed Chess only made me yearn for a Bay area theatre company to offer a concert reading of 1996's Martin Guerre -- a failed musical with a score that's really worth listening to.

Performances of Chess continue through October 15 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

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