Thursday, June 21, 2018

Upgrades and Updates

Anyone who uses a computer or smartphone has grown accustomed to the face of technology's new rules:
  • Depending on your settings, at any time you may receive a notification or update from a news source, mobile app, or social network.
  • When you least expect it, you may be required to download and install an upgrade to an operating system, a specific piece of software, or a mobile app.
Upgrades and updates also have an impact on film, theatre, and opera. To describe this, I usually refer to a simple acronym (LATCH) which stands for:

Licensing: Recent years have witnessed the rebooting of several popular television series with most of their original casts (Will & Grace, Arrested Development, Murphy Brown, and the briefly aired Roseanne). This creates new content which, in turn, draws new advertisers -- thus creating valuable new revenue streams. When an American classic like Porgy and Bess nears the end of its copyright protection, it approaches a legal change of status by entering the public domain. Finding a way to copyright a revised version of the work and then withdrawing performance rights to the older version can coax new wealth from a diminishing revenue stream.

Audience Development: As older patrons die off, many arts organizations search for works which will attract younger audiences. This can also be accomplished by updating an opera to a more modern setting. In 2013, the Metropolitan Opera premiered an updated version of Verdi's Rigoletto set in Las Vegas. In 2017, the Opera nacional de Paris staged a production of Puccini's La Bohème set on an alien planet.

Talent: In certain situations, a box office star has been able to headline a major revival of a Broadway musical (Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!) or re-introduce a rarely-performed opera to the public (the husband-and-wife team of Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge played a key role in reviving Massenet's Esclarmonde and Le Roi de Lahore).

Context: Recent changes in society might allow a creative team to take another look at a classic (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently staged a version of Oklahoma! with Laurie and Curly as two lesbians in love and Will Parker and Ado "Andy" as two gay men in a same-sex relationship).

Historical Imperative: With 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of two landmark gay plays, impressive revivals of Tony Kushner's award-winning epic, Angels in America, and Mart Crowley's ground-breaking drama, The Boys in the Band, are currently being presented on Broadway.

By a curious twist of fate, I recently attended two world premieres on consecutive nights. One was an updated vision/version of Don Quixote (originally published by Miguel de Cervantes in two volumes dating back to 1605 and 1615) which gave a 400-year-old story a major facelift. The other was a screen-to-stage musicalization of 1999's popular film, A Walk on the Moon, which brought a new dimension to a love story set during the tumultuous summer that witnessed the Stonewall riots, the death of Judy Garland, the Woodstock music festival, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

* * * * * * * * *
It was a cold and windy night when the California Shakespeare Theater presented the world premiere of Quixote Nuevo, a new spin on an old tale by Octavio Solis which relocates the action from La Mancha (Spain) to La Plancha (Texas) and includes biting references to problems with the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement (ICE), and the inhumane separation of children from their migrant parents. In this setting, the famous "Golden Helmet of Mambrino" becomes a hospital bedpan and the folly of expecting Mexico to pay for Donald Trump's border wall is openly mocked by the citizenry.

Amy Lizardo (Juana), Juan Amador (Sancho) in a
scene from Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Vigorously directed by KJ Sanchez, the CalShakes ensemble moves quickly (on foot, tricycles, and with Sancho pedaling an ice cream cart that has a friendly donkey painted on its side). The production is noticeably brightened by Ulises Alcala's costumes and Annie Smart's sets, with a score composed by David R. Molina and Eduardo Robledo that helps to create a vibrant soundscape of street life in a Mexican-American border town. As Molina (who also handled the show's sound design) notes:
“There’s constant music and sound throughout the play, and different moods. I’m trying to mix different styles of border music and Mexican music, but filtering it through this surreal supernatural world. You hear the traditional styles but they’re all twisted. I’m trying to go for a very larger-than-life composition.”
Amy Lizardo, Hugo E Carbajal, and Carlos Aguirre
in a scene from Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The most obvious change in this reworking of the Quixote legend is a careful repositioning of where the old man stands at this particular moment in his life. Instead of merely assuming that Quixote is a nobleman who has gone crazy and keeps pursuing a beautiful fantasy woman named Dulcinea, he is placed in a more easily recognizable situation as an old geezer who cannot take care of himself and has become so unmanageable that his family can no longer bear the responsibility of tending to his needs.

Juan Amador (Sancho) and Emilio Delgado (Quixote)
in a scene from Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Solis envisions his hero as a retired professor of literature who, though he has kept in touch with some of his most devoted students, has lost touch with the boundary between fact and fiction. His most beloved passages of poetry and literature now keep him alive, buoying him up from long days of tedium as he tries to avoid his sister's desperate attempt to place Quixote in an assisted care facility. As the playwright explains:
“It’s always been a question whether Don Quixote was crazy, or crazy like a fox. Whether he always knew that he was wearing this mask and couldn’t let it slip (or whether he was in a kind of madness). It never occurred to me that it wasn’t just mental illness, but a form of dementia brought on by his advanced age. Knowing that that might be another avenue to take in understanding what Quixote’s going through has opened the play up for me in a more personal way than ever before. When they told me I could have a full Latino cast here and a Latino director, I felt like I could really get in that world and use the language in a really bilingual way. It’s very liberating to do that.”
Emilio Delgado stars in Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
“An early work of mine called Man of the Flesh is about the lothario Don Juan set during Day of the Dead. It was rollicking in all the right ways. I thought, maybe I can revisit that and let that be the framework (that death is following Quixote all through the play to provide a bridge between the past and present, between one world and another world, between memory and fantasy, and experience through this idea of the presence of death: of Papa Calaca). It made sense and, once I did that, the play really opened up.”
Hugo E. Carbajal (Papa Calaca) and Emilio Delgado (Quixote)
in a scene from Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Quixote Nuevo builds on the success of last year's black odyssey by Marcus Gardley (which will be revived in September) in solidifying the foundation for the New Classics Initiative recently announced by CalShakes. In short, the NCI program is designed "to explore what it means to be a classical theatre in the 21st century by commissioning contemporary playwrights to re-imagine classic Western drama and to introduce works from different cultures and traditions into our canon." In the case of Quixote Nuevo, that also means challenging the audience's language skills (those who don't speak fluent Spanish or are unfamiliar with its cadences will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage during some of the rapid-fire banter that is unleashed onstage).

Hugo E. Carbajal portrays Papa Calaca in Quixote Nuevo
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Thankfully, key moments of the familiar story come across with a new poignancy in this adaptation, especially when framed by the prospect of a loved one vanishing into the cloud of age-related dementia. Emilio Delgado brings a new touch of empathy to the old man (who might not be as foolish as he appears) and shines in the scene during which he tries to advise his younger self to seek out an education.

Emilio Delgado (Quixote) and Carlos Aguirre (Young Quijano)
in a scene from Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Hugo E. Carbajal brings a great sense of the forces of life and death to the proceedings, with Juan Amador as an appealing Sancho, Amy Lizardo as his wife (Juana), and Sol Castillo as Padre Perez. In smaller roles, Gianna Di Gregorio Rivera appears as Antonia, Michele Apriña Leavy as Magdalena, and Sarita Ocón as Dulcinea. As always, Carlos Aguirre's versatility and intense commitment to characterization merit special notice.

Juan Amador is Sancho in Quixote Nuevo (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Nuevo Quixote continue through July 1 at the Bruns Amphitheatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
As the final production to be presented during Carey Perloff's 25-year leadership as artistic director, American Conservatory Theater recently presented the world premiere of A Walk on the Moon, based on the popular 1999 film whose screenplay was written by Pamela Gray. With music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman, choreography by Josh Prince, and the show's book also written by Ms. Gray, this production has been directed with great sensitivity by Sheryl Kaller.

Appealing to the eyes as well as the ears, A Walk on the Moon is full of surprises. The one for which I am most grateful is that, in an age when rock musicals are so heavily amplified that there is a great deal of sound distortion, Leon Rothenberg's excellent sound design actually makes it possible to hear most of the lyrics without straining. The only major exception involves a comic device which can and should be adjusted for the sake of clarity.

How so? A recurring bit involves announcements broadcast over the public address system at Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony in the Catskills. These are barely intelligible due to their scratchy sound (anyone who has stood on a downtown MUNI platform and tried to understand a system announcement will easily identify with the problem). While the gimmick is funny for the first two or three times it is used, it eventually becomes counterproductive. Thankfully, this is a very small blemish on what is otherwise a surprisingly smooth and satisfying show. As I told a friend at intermission, these days if you can get through the first act of a family drama and the only angry person is a pouting teenage girl who has just had her first period, it feels like smooth sailing!

Molly Hager (Bunny), Monique Hafen (Rhoda), Ariela Morgenstern
(Eleanor), Kerry O'Malley (Lillian) and Katie Brayben (Pearl) in
a scene from A Walk on the Moon (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

The musical's plot revolves around two coming-of-age stories. Pearl Kantrowitz (Katie Brayben) is married with two children. Like the other women in her social circle, she is spending the summer at a bungalow colony with her family (the kids stay with their mother while their father spends his work week in New York City). With the Apollo 11 moon landing about to happen, everyone in New York suddenly needs to have their television repaired. As a result, Pearl's husband, Marty (Jonah Platt), is being kept on a very tight rope by his employer.

Pearl is at a curious point in her marriage. Her angry teenage daughter, Alison (Brigid O’Brien), hates Pearl's guts because her mother wouldn't let Alison bring her record player with her to the Catskills. Meanwhile, Pearl is increasingly aware that something is missing from her marriage (as well as from her life and sense of self esteem).

When Pearl and Marty met, she got pregnant on their first date. As a result, Pearl never really had a chance to experience her teenage years and early 20s (a period when most young people start to blossom and come into their own). A chance encounter with a free-thinking vendor known to the women of the bungalow colony as "the blouse man" lights a spark that Pearl hasn't felt in years. When Marty keeps missing weekends because his boss won't let him leave the shop, Pearl succumbs to the charms of the tall, handsome, and easily available Walker (Zak Resnick), who has plans to move to San Francisco after Labor Day.

Katie Brayben (Pearl) and Zak Resnick (Walker) in a scene from
A Walk on the Moon (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

Meanwhile, when she is not sulking and stomping around the bungalow colony, Alison is starting to make friends with Myra (Nina Kissinger), a girl from an Orthodox Jewish family whose wardrobe is much more conservative than the clothes Alison gets to wear. When a handsome young teenager named Ross (Nick Sacks) arrives on the scene with his guitar, sparks quickly fly between the two awkward teens. Ross and Alison start kissing, taking walks together, and soon begin making plans for sneak out and crash the upcoming Woodstock festival.

Nick Sacks (Ross) and Brigid O'Brien (Alison) in a scene from
A Walk on the Moon (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

In looking back on her teenage years, Pamela Gray recalls that:
“My parents had been going to the bungalows since the 1940s -- we’d often go with the same families year after year. These Jewish housewives lived in this matriarchal world where they’d be visited by vendors throughout the week. We didn’t even know their names; they were the blouse man, the dress man, the bathing-suit man. It was sort of like contemporary shtetl life. There were so many forces at play that summer -- there was the awareness that this other world was encroaching upon us. Not only was it the last summer of the ’60s, but there was also a change in the Catskills around the early 1970s. In our little town, Moishe’s Butcher Shop changed its name to The Funky Chicken to try to attract the kids walking by and hitching to Bethel (a Catskills town where the festival was being held). This major part of East Coast Jewish culture was coming to an end. This important part of our childhood and adolescence wasn’t there anymore.”
Katie Brayben (Pearl) in a scene from A Walk on the Moon
(Photo by: Alessandro Mello)
“This is a story where a daughter is chronologically coming of age while her mother is emotionally coming of age. While Pearl probably wouldn’t even know the word ‘feminist,’ she has this feeling that a lot of women had at the time and that most women are aware of now: she wants to live fully and to be seen as more than just a wife and a mother. Pearl’s transgression, while painful for the family, is ultimately a catalyst for change. There’s no 'And Marty and Pearl will live happily ever after. The End.' What’s important is that they’re willing to try to make things better. At the very end, they share a dance together and they’re dancing in a new way.”
Jonah Platt (Marty) and Katie Brayben (Pearl) in a scene from
A Walk on the Moon (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

As the moon landing approaches, Pearl's fling with Walker intensifies, causing Pearl's mother-in-law, Lillian (Kerry O’Malley), to call her son in New York and tell him to get his ass up to the Catskills. While Pearl and Walker enjoy the freedom of Woodstock as adults, Alison and Ross are in another part of the meadow having themselves a grand adventure until the moment when, scanning the crowd through her father's binoculars, Alison sees her half-naked mother perched atop Walker's shoulders.

By the time Marty reaches the bungalow colony, there is plenty of tension in the air. After his son, Danny, gets stung by several bees, it is Walker who carries the boy into the bungalow and knows how to ease Danny's pain. Not only do Pearl and Marty have to do a lot of work to repair their marriage, Pearl needs to cut off her affair with Walker. Both parents try to explain to Alison that her birth was not an accident, that they really wanted to have a child and have never regretted raising her.

A.C.T.'s handsome production has been designed by Donyale Werle, with costumes by Linda Cho, lighting by Robert Wierzel, and an impressive use of projections designed by Tal Yarden. From the show's opening number ("First Saturday Night of the Summer") to Ross's plucky "Hey, Mister President" and Lillian's "The Microscope," the songs are much more focused on bringing clarity to the narrative than simply rocking out on the sounds of the Sixties. The wives sing about a "World Without Men" while, late in the evening, Pearl, Marty, and Alison have a touching scene singing "We Made You."

Pearl's solos include "Out of This World," "Ground Beneath My Feet," and "I Can Do This" in addition to three lovely duets with Walker ("How Come You're So Beautiful?" "Waterfall," and "I Just Came To Say Goodbye").

Katie Brayben (Pearl) in a scene from A Walk on the Moon
(Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

The four leads are exceptionally strong, with Katie Brayben's Pearl experiencing some long overdue psychological growth thanks to the laid-back charm of Zak Resnick's Walker. Brigid O'Brien's Alison, Nick Sacks's Ross, and Nina Kissinger's Myra glow with the optimism and hormonal rushes of rebellious teens while Kerry O'Malley's Lillian provides a nurturing bubbe who is always ready with a reality check. Jonah Platt gives a strong performance as Pearl's struggling husband while Monique Hafen has some nice moments as Pearl's best friend, Rhoda.

Brigid O'Brien (Alison) and Nick Sacks (Ross) in a scene from
A Walk on the Moon (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

Among the show's many assets are its musical score, an extremely likable cast, and a surprising level of charm (a rare quality in many new musicals). Performances of A Walk on the Moon continue at the American Conservatory Theater through July 1 (click here for tickets).