Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Musical Americana

As we approach the July 4th celebrations of Independence Day, many people will anticipate hearing patriotic standards. Among the many folk songs, military marches, popular songs, and traditional anthems that will no doubt be performed by orchestras and choral ensembles around the nation are:
By a curious set of circumstances, the last two weeks of June allowed me a chance to savor a wealth of musical Americana. Even though most of this music fell far outside the usual catalog of patriotic songs, it offered a fascinating perspective on how composers viewed America at various points in the 20th century.

* * * * * * * *
Over at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera was presenting a new production of Giacomo Puccini's only opera to have had its world premiere in the United States. Based on a play by David Belasco, Girl of the Golden West is set in California's Sierra Madre Mountains, which are much closer to Santa Barbara than the area around Sutter's Mill (the site that inspired the California gold rush). The opera -- which takes place during the winter of 1849-1850 -- premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910. This year marks the opera's centenary and, accordingly, Fanciulla del West will be performed by numerous opera companies.

Nick (Salvatore Licitra) and Minnie (Deborah Voigt)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With sets designed by Maurizio Balò, costumes by Gabriel Berry, and lighting by Duane Schuler, this co-production with Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Opera Royal de Wallonie is visually spectacular. If one isn't blown away by the sheer scale of the sandstone cliffs that dominate the stage, there is always the Act III upstage drop that evokes memories of Albert Bierstadt's magnificent paintings of the American West.

Musically, however, there is a big problem with this production. Under normal circumstances it would take a major effort to drown out soprano Deborah Voigt (who was making her debut in the role of Minnie). However, as he demonstrated during last year's production of Tosca, conductor Nicola Luisotti -- who was named Music Director of the San Francisco last fall -- tends to overwhelm his singers in many parts of the score.

Rance (Roberto Frontali), Minnie (Deborah Voigt), and
Johnson (Salvatore Licitra) (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Puccini's opera is notable for having only two women in the cast: the heroine and her Indian servant, Wowkle (Maya Lahyani). With most of the vocal music spread over a male chorus, there are numerous opportunities for character singers. These were happily filled by Brian Leerhuber (Larkens), Brian Jagde (Joe), David LomelĂ­ (Harry), Matthew O’Neill (Trin), Austin Kness (Handsome), Trevor Scheunemann (Jake Wallace), Steven Cole (Nick), and Timothy Mix (Sonora).

Under Lorenzo Mariani's direction, the male principals included bass Kevin Langan as the Wells Fargo agent (Ashby), baritone Roberto Frontali as Sheriff Jack Rance, and tenor Salvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson (a/k/a the Mexican bandit, Ramerrez). Although chorus director Ian Robertson worked hard to inspire clarity from the male chorus, this was the kind of evening where one exited the Opera House whistling the sets rather than Puccini's score. Nevertheless, I always relish the chance to hear the latest gossip about "Mr. Johnson della Sacramento" and listen to Dick and Minnie make their final exit singing "Addio, mia California!"

* * * * * * * *
On Monday, June 21, 42nd Street Moon held its annual fundraising event at the Alcazar Theatre. Entitled "Kiss The Boys Goodbye: The Songs of Broadway and Hollywood in the 1940s" the evening featured company regulars Pierce Peter Brandt, Tami Dahbura, Dave Dobrusky, Bill Fahrner, Sarah Kathleen Farrell, Alexandra Kaprielian, Greg MacKellan, Anil Margsahayam, Carly Ozard, Benjamin Pither, Darlene Popovic, Stephanie Rhoads, Jimmy Robertson, and Andrew Willis-Woodward.

Stephanie Rhoads, Greg MacKellan, Sarah Kathleen Farrell
and Andrew Willis-Woodward

For some in the company it was a bittersweet event, a chance to say farewell to several performers who are leaving the Bay area to pursue their musical careers on the East Coast. For the audience, however, the evening offered a chance to hear some rarely performed songs, including such gems as:
  • "I Said No" (written by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser).
  • "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old" (written by Arthur Schwartz, Frank Loesser) and performed to the hilt by Carly Ozard and Darlene Popovic.
  • "Outside of That, I Love You" (an Irving Berlin rarity).
  • "Call Me Mister" (the rarely-heard title song from the Harold Rome musical revue of the same name).
  • "Minnie From Trinidad" (written by Harry Edens).
Darlene Popovic, Greg MacKellan, and Tami Dahbura

With her wonderful sense of comic timing, Darlene Popovic scored a big hit with "South America, Take It Away" while two of the men gave new meaning to "Put The Blame On Mame" (written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher).

Jimmy Robertson and Sarah Kathleen Farrell

Although the evening's finale included an audience sing-along to Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (written by Allie Wruble and Ray Gilbert), one of the sweetest moments was a stripped-down version of "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" (written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon). Here's the mercurial Carmen Miranda in Busby Berkeley's unforgettable production number from 1943's The Gang's All Here:

Special credit should be given to the company's co-founder, Greg MacKellan, for his curatorial skills in digging up great songs from the period. 42nd Street Moon's next season includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum (Stephen Sondheim), Babes in Arms (Rodgers & Hart), Strike Up The Band (George & Ira Gershwin), Silk Stockings (Cole Porter), and Murder For Two (a new murder mystery musical comedy by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair in which two actors portray all the characters while playing a single piano). Here's a preview:

* * * * * * * * *
To help celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Fantasticks, SFPlayhouse is presenting off-Broadway's longest running musical (17,162 performances during its 42 years at the tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse) in a new production with a modern-day twist. As director Bill English explains:
"What if The Fantasticks was set in a time when there was no grass or grain and when the act of trying to remember them was filled with loss and yearning? What if the world suffered some ecological disaster and a troupe of players were traveling across a broken landscape trying to keep hope alive with this beautiful tale of innocence, loss, and renewal? As they perform this ritual (as important to them as it is to the audience), they keep their faith alive.

An eternal story, The Fantasticks calls on us to cherish the essential elements of life. Hopefully, our version will serve as a cautionary tale that can help us protect what we have before we lose it."
Sepideh Moafi and Jeremy Kahn (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Based on a play by Edmond Rostand called The Romancers (Les Romanesques), The Fantasticks holds up remarkably well after a half century. The songs (written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt for a solo piano accompaniment) retain a surprising amount of power, especially "Try To Remember," "Much More," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It," and "They Were You."

Other than a few paramilitary touches (most notable in Nina Ball's set and costume designs and Norman Munoz's hunky portrayal of The Mute), there is little to indicate a postapocalyptic tone to the production. In some minor changes, Luisa's father has undergone a gender change and become her mother. A joke about the pronunciation of the name "El Gallo" has been modified to sound like El Guy-O, El Gal-O, and even El Gay-O, to which the character mischievously answers "Well, maybe sometimes."

Ray Reinhardt, Jeremy Kahn, Yusef Lambert and
Norman Munoz (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

SFPlayhouse's appealing ensemble includes Jeremy Kahn as Matt, Sepideh Moafi as Luisa, Louis Parnell as Matt's father, and Joan Mankin giving a wonderful performance as Luisa's mother. Although Tarek Khan has some weak vocal moments as El Gallo, one could not hope for better comic relief than that offered by Yusef Lambert as Mortimer and 80-year-old veteran actor, Ray Reinhardt, as Henry.

As fresh as the SFPlayhouse production is, there's an element of seeing The Fantasticks again that's like visiting with an old friend you haven't seen in years -- someone who is an important touchstone to an earlier part of your life. Performances of The Fantasticks continue at SFPlayhouse through September 4 (you can order tickets here). It's still utterly charming.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

may the blessing be always with you!!.................................................................