Sunday, October 3, 2010

Old Stories Retold

Information has been passed from one person to another through storytelling for many centuries. The Hawaiian culture (like many others) has a strong oral tradition which is used to recite and recount the culture's history and mythology to younger generations.

Whether one examines the function of a traditional Greek chorus, the role of a wandering minstrel, or the power of the printed word, some stories never lose their power over our imaginations. There are times, of course, when the telling of such stories can lack inspiration or suffer in delivery.  But, by and large, they retain the ability to hold an audience captive to their magic.

In recent weeks, Bay area audiences have witnessed three uniquely different types of storytelling experiences. One was a complete surprise, one a disappointment, and one a loud, gaudy display of exceptional vocal skill.

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Although I never had the pleasure of seeing Janis Paige in the original cast of The Pajama Game, I did catch her performances on Broadway in Meredith Willson's failed 1963 musical, Here's Love! and when she took over the title role in Jerry Herman's blockbuster hit, Mame, from Angela Lansbury on April 1, 1968. When I saw that Paige would be making a brief appearance at The Rrazz Room in late September I was curious what songs she might perform after her long and highly successful career in nightclubs and on film.

Paige opened with a medley of  "As If We Never Said Goodbye" (from Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of Sunset Boulevard) and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (from Irving Berlin's classic, Annie Get Your Gun). While it was obvious that, at 88 years of age, her singing voice had become a raspy shadow of its former self, that quickly became a non-issue. 

An avowed fan of singer/songwriter Amanda McBroom, Paige delivered a moving rendition of "Dance." Her performance of Alan and Marilyn Bergman's song, "Fifty Percent" (from the 1978 musical Ballroom), was a not just a dramatic tour de force -- it was a master class in how a skilled actor puts a song over to the audience when her vocal assets are severely limited.

Janis Paige (Photo by: Jane Hunt)

Paige quickly veered off in an unexpected direction, telling stories that held the audience in the palm of her hand. Starting with her childhood in Tacoma during the Great Depression (where the one ray of light was a chance to see Fred Astaire dancing onscreen) and moving up to when she actually got to meet and work with Astaire in the MGM production of Silk Stockings, her stories retained the wonder of a little girl whose life had continually been blessed with minor miracles. 

Whether describing her experiences at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II or how Frank Sinatra took her under his wing when he learned that she was sitting alone in a hotel room in New York on Thanksgiving Day with no one to turn to, she evoked memories of a long-gone era in the entertainment industry when kindness was a given and professionalism an artistic standard one aspired to.

Following the 1966 death of her husband, Ray Gilbert (who wrote the lyrics for Song of the South's Oscar-winning song,"Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah"), Paige became actively involved in helping the widows and children of songwriters learn how to protect their financial assets.

Janis Paige performing at the Rrazz Room (Photo by: Pat Johnson)

Subsequent musical numbers, though sung with an obviously weakened voice, were nevertheless delivered with the kind of craft that can only be learned through years of experience performing in front of audiences. Two of the musical highlights were "Stereophonic Sound" (from Silk Stockings) and a bittersweet song entitled "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart" that had been written for Paige.

Rather than the evening turning into a musical disappointment, Paige's appearance at The Rrazz Room offered a glowing display of dramatic technique, basic humanity, and the need to keep making every moment count. By the end of the evening it was hard to tell who was more grateful for the experience -- Janis Paige for the
loving adulation showered upon her by the audience -- or the audience for a thrillingly poignant, surprisingly intimate, and deeply moving 90 minutes with the stuff of which legends are truly made.

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During the past year and a half, Bay area theatregoers have been treated to a series of new works inspired by Greek mythology and great works from classic Greek theatre.
Despite the best of intentions, the U.S. premiere Colin Teevan's adaptation of Euripides' tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis, failed to engage the audience as successfully as any of the above productions. A co-production between San Francisco's Brava Theatre and the African-American Shakespeare Company, the ambitious physical production made extensive use of Wesley Cabral's video designs

Agamemnon (L. Peter Callender) and Iphgeneia (Traci Tolmaire)
in IPH (Photo by: Charlie Villyard)

In her program notes, director Dylan Russell writes:
"Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis dramatizes the myth of Iphigenia, the young virgin sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, at the start of the war against Troy.
In Iph... Teevan meets Euripides at the intersection between the ancient and the contemporary. It is part religious sermon; part rock concert; park classic tragedy; part Hollywood blockbuster; part contemporary drama where brutal family dynamics rip one soul from another. The heart of this play resides where Teevan's voice translates the ancient truths found in Euripides' tragedy to words, thoughts, and images that resound with our experience in a contemporary world. It is the anti-war play Euripides crafted and Teevan's modern treatise on the cost of fame in our world.
Desiring fame, many of the Greek heroes selfishly pursued immortality through their quests. This is a stone's throw away from individuals who throw their lives to the public feeding trough in their desire to become famous today. Our contemporary quest for fame has taken some of the best and brightest from us before their time. Is it this search for fame that compels Iph to sacrifice herself for her father's promise? Is it an imitation of Agamemnon's model as master politician? Is it worship (war-ship) love of a daughter for her father?"

Klytaimnestra (C. Kelly Wright), Iphigeneia (Traci Tolmaire) and
Agamemnon (L. Peter Callender) in IPH. (Photo by:Charlie Villyard)

What IPH... ended up feeling like was a well-thought out academic adaptation that sounded good on paper but emerged as soggy and overcooked onstage as if it had steeped overnight in a dramatic crock pot. Teevan cut his chorus down to four women (with Lisa Lacy leading an ensemble comprised of Marilet Martinez, Sarita Ocon, and Natalia Duong) but, despite an impressive unit set by Matt McAdon, the performance failed to reach critical temperature.

Although L. Peter Callendar's Agamemnon, C. Kelly Wright's Klytaimnestra, Traci Tolmaire's Iphigeneia, Dorian Lockett's Menelaus, Luke Taylor's Achilleus and Peter Kybart's Old Man all struggled to breath life into Teevan's IPH..., their combined efforts did not produce an exciting evening of theatre.

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Of the three performances described in this column, the one with the loudest oral tradition was the new production of Aida produced by the San Francisco Opera. A co-production between the Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera, and San Francisco Opera, this new production (designed by Zandra Rhodes) has a distinct touch of Las Vegas glitz, as if Siegfried & Roy had wandered down the Strip to the Luxor Hotel and watched the Triumphal Scene from the theatre's catwalks, merrily tossing bits of gold glitter to the stage below. Where else would you see Radames lowered into his tomb in a metal cage as if he was shark bait?

Marcello Giordani  makes a triumphant entrance as Radames 
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Some may have found the production a bit on the tacky side, but I loved it (and not just because of the gigantic breakaway elephant with ears made of baby blue fabric)! In the 40+ years that I've been watching opera companies perform Verdi's Aida this was the first time I'd seen a stage director (Jo Davies) make the kind of common sense decision that no one else ever thinks about.

The Triumphal Scene from Verdi's Aida (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Many productions of Aida have been designed to impress audiences with the physical size of their sets. This usually forces the chorus and principals upstage at key moments, where some of their sound can be lost behind the proscenium. By bringing the chorus and principals as far downstage as possible, Davies filled the auditorium with a rare brilliance of sound, ranging from the male chorus to the brilliant, stentorian tones of tenor Marcello Giordani and the high-octane power of Dolora Zajick's  mezzo soprano.

Dolora Zajick as Amneris (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Back in the 1960s, when I first started attending performances of Aida, the opera ran four hours and was presented in four separate acts, with curtain calls by the principals after each act. Today, most performances have been compressed into two long acts (presumably to avoid overtime as well as meet the need for many audience members to get home at a reasonable hour). However, thanks to Nicola Luisotti's conducting and Ian Robertson's chorus direction, this performance of Aida was one of the most exciting I've heard from a musical standpoint.

Ethiopians Amonasro (Marco Vratogna) and Aida (Micaela Carosi)
plan their revenge on Egypt's Amneris (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Micaela Carosi's Aida and Marco Vratogna's Amonasro were solidly sung. Dolora Zajick's Amneris was as forceful as ever. Even Christian Van Horn's performance as the King of Egypt deserved praise. Special mention should be made of Marcello Giordani's splendid Radames, which filled the house with clarion tones and yet, at the end of Celeste Aida, was able to be heard softly singing the final notes of the aria that are usually drowned out by applause.

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