Thursday, August 7, 2008

Into The Woods

Even though I spent many summers at a YMCA camp, my idea of roughing it is a Hilton. Sticks and stones won't break my bones, but they're not much fun to sleep on. Trail mix is the only part of hiking that interests me. Campfires are best remembered for sticky, gooey marshmallows that were roasted on the end of a stick. Tents and sleeping bags hold absolutely no allure for this certified city boy.

I'm also afraid of heights. When I moved to San Francisco in 1972, my roommate insisted that we take a trip to Mount Tamalpais for its great views of the Bay area. As we walked along the mountain trail, hawks lazily circled over Marin County far below us. Chuck thought it was hilarious that I was paralyzed by a fear of looking down. Meanwhile, Red (his terminally stupid but lovable Irish Setter) kept running back and forth near the edge of the drop-off, the dog's tail spinning like a propeller while his tongue dangled in ecstasy.

Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

That may be why I was so taken by one of the pieces in the Jews in Shorts program that was screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival There can be little doubt in my mind that "To jump or not to jump, oy what a question!" was the inspiration for Zohar Levi's sweet and touching Chronicle of a Jump. In her film, Levi focuses her camera on a young man who wants to prove his machismo to his girlfriend (and himself) by jumping from a small cliff into the water below. As he nervously approaches the edge of the cliff, backs off, and keeps trying to get up the courage to jump, his girlfriend waits on a nearby promontory, reading and eating while waiting for him to gather his nerves.

After his courage fails him, the young man jumps from a much lower height, swims back to his girlfriend and crabbily suggests that they pack up and leave the campsite. He's obviously afraid of heights.

Or is he?

At the moment one would think this film would end, the camera pans over to the cliff and shows one person after another happily jumping into the water as the young man launches into an impassioned voiceover in which he explains that all we really fear is the fear of the unknown. It's not the height we fear, nor is it the water which awaits us. It's the two seconds of falling which can turn our blood to ice. If we can conquer our fear of falling, we can conquer anything.

Back in June, when I traveled to New York to attend my nephew's wedding, I enjoyed a return visit to the American Museum of Natural History. Due to a painful flare of sciatica, I ended up spending more time than I had planned in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. At the time, I could never have imagined how useful that half hour would become. Seven weeks later, I found myself en route to Martinez for a performance of the world premiere production of Sacagawea by the The Willows Theatre Company.

With book and lyrics by Mary Bracken Phillips, and music by Craig Bohmler (who already has seven musicals, three operas, numerous choral works and quite a few songs to his credit), this show takes its inspiration from the young Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition through the Rockies to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805. Phillips and Bohmler (who have already had Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical produced by the Willows Theatre Company) plan to create several more shows based on important characters from the history of the Pacific Northwest.

One of the challenges facing the creative team of a show like Sacagawea is the sheer amount of exposition that must be crammed into the book. Their heroine's story is long, detailed, and the show is historically faithful in its depiction of her experiences with Lewis & Clark's expedition. I particularly liked the way Bohmler used the sounds of drumming and bird calls for the musical bridges that accompanied set changes. However, listening to the messages from the Great White Father of the Americas (Thomas Jefferson) induced cringes of Caucasian shame. With an extremely flexible unit set designed by Peter Crompton and strong lighting from Robert Anderson, Sacagawea sat well on the stage of the Alhambra Performing Arts Center.

Strong performances came from Ryan Drummond as Meriwether Lewis, Morgan Smith as William Clark, Jennifer Paz as Sacagawea, and Joti Gore as Clark's black slave, York. While the show could benefit from a stronger cast and stage director, this was a fairly solid achievement for a community theater group.

Unfortunately, the mischievous thoughts that course through the mind of an aging Broadway show-tune queen as he is confronted with new material do not always jibe with what is happening onstage. Many moments of dialogue sparked memories from old Broadway musicals.

In Act I, as Sacagawea and Clark tried to wrestle with the meaning of the word "funny," I found myself thinking back to Jule Styne's Gypsy (1959):
"Funny, you're a stranger in town here.
Come from a different place.
Funny, I'm a stranger myself here.
Small world, isn't it?"

As an illicit romance continued to build between Clark and Sacagawea, I couldn't help thinking of Yip Harburg's lyric for "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow (1947). When Lewis (who had been nicknamed "Frown" by Sacagawea) suggested that his colleagues only teach the young Shoshone woman "happy words," I instantly thought of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Happy Talk" from South Pacific (1949). It didn't take much to spark the memory of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946), with Ethel Merman belting:

"Some Indian summer's day
Without a care.
I may run away'
With Big Chief Son of a Bear!"
Later, as the expedition scavenged for food, I began to hear the lilting strains of Meredith Willson's "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" from Here's Love (1963) -- a musical based on the film Miracle on 34th Street in which the composer included his 1951 hit song "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas."

As the exhausted expedition neared the Pacific Coast, I enjoyed fond memories of Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz's "Why Don't You See Seattle" from Jennie (1963). An historically accurate scene in which Sacagawea gives up her blue-beaded Indian belt so that Lewis & Clark can trade it for a seal fur to bring to President Thomas Jefferson instantly brought to mind a classic lyric from Rodgers & Hart's Garrick Gaieties (1925):

"We'll have Manhattan,
The Bronx and Staten Island, too."
A critical decision (which, more than 200 years ago marked the first time in American history that a woman and a black man were allowed to vote) had one character after another opting to spend the winter on the "South Side" (of the Columbia River). I kept waiting for the chorus to break into a bent V-shape and start singing "Hello, Barack!"

History relates that for three years following the expedition, Sacagawea and her husband, the fur trader Charbonneau, lived among the Hidatsa Indians before accepting Clark's invitation to settle in St. Louis in 1809.

The best -- and most unintentional laugh -- resulted from a moment of sound distortion toward the end of the show. As one of the actors described what had happened to various characters, my friend and I both thought we heard him refer to one character as "still being at war with the Hadassahs." Elliott doubled over in laughter as he visualized a busload of angry but well-coifed Jewish matrons beating the Indian staff at a casino with their pocketbooks while demanding more quarters for the slot machines.

While Sacagawea may not have been Drums along the Martinez, a relatively good time was had by all.

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