Sunday, January 30, 2011

Give Their Regards To Broadway

Sometimes a quick look at your calendar can knock you for a loop. Commitments you made far in advance originally had no relationship to the other items that landed in the same week. When you least expect it, a quick check of what you're doing over the next few days takes on a new and surprising relevance.

With so much attention showered on Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in recent seasons, a curious coincidence put the history of the American musical theatre in a different light last week. I discovered that, without any intentional planning, I would be exposed to musical highlights from nearly 100 years of the history of the American musical theatre. Here's how it played out (in reverse order).

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On Saturday night, I headed over to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for a performance of 'S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical.  This is essentially a fast-paced musical revue directed and conceived by Ray Roderick (who also created Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano, which played at the JCCSF last year). With choreography by  Vince Pesce (and Nathan W. Perry as pianist/music director), Roderick built a curious story line for the show. The promotional synopsis reads as follows:
"'S Wonderful starts in New York City in 1924 honoring the comedic style of silent movie stars of the 1920s. A desire for love allows a man to shatter his black and white existence and find a world of color. The journey continues in 1938 as a young Parisian cafĂ© waitress and an American sailor struggle to follow their love in WWII Paris. We fast forward to 1948 Hollywood with a makeup artist who makes others beautiful. She discovers her own creative gifts and finds the beauty in herself. 'S Wonderful then introduces us to a young singer who has traveled the world, and finally finds her true love: The city of New Orleans in 1959. Finally, our journey ends in the present day. Separated by 3,000 miles, a young man uses today's technology and the songs of George and Ira Gershwin to tell his love what he can't say for himself, proving the enduring and timeless power of the Gershwin Songbook."
Poster art for 'S Wonderful

The show is framed by a curious subplot in which the spirit of a young woman wants to find a way to let her grandson enjoy the music that she loved so dearly when she was his age. Since she can't give him her vinyl recordings, she has been trying to find a way to give him the songs written by the Gershwin brothers so that  he can share them with his friends.  Needless to say, the fact that his ear buds are connected to an iPhone offers her the perfect delivery system using the latest technology.

What follows is an extremely fast-paced race through more than 40 songs written by George and Ira Gershwin between 1916 and 1937. While the performances by Tripp HamptonKevin MetzgerKatie MitchellKatie Reid, and Kimberly Thomas are as perky as one would expect from an industrial show (or a cruise ship's entertainment staff), the plot is about as subtle as Beach Blanket Babylon's many trips around the world.

Roderick's shows evidence a severe dread of letting a slow number cast a musical spell on the audience (his revues are sometimes so energetic that they leave audiences wishing for a break in the forward momentum). What makes 'S Wonderful much more interesting than his Irving Berlin revue is the use of so many snippets from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris for musical bridges. The following promotional video gives a good sense of the show's pacing:

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On Thursday night, the Alcazar Theatre played host to the latest installment in 42nd Street Moon's musical salons dedicated to Broadway's most important composers and lyricists.  All That Jazz! A John Kander Salon starred Noah Racey and Karen Ziemba with strong support from such 42nd Street Moon stalwarts as Rob Hatzenbeller, Alexandra KaprielianAnil Margsahayam, and co-founder Stephanie Rhoads.

Composer John Kander

As always, the company's artistic director, Gregg MacKellan, narrated the evening with music director Dave Dobrusky at the piano and Nick DiScala on reeds. The only drawback to an otherwise thoroughly delightful event was the poor sound design by Carole Davis, which was often shrill and distorted the evening's vocal contributions.

Rob Hatzenbeller, Greg MacKellan, Anil Margsahayam,
Nick DiScala, Dave Dobrusky, and Noah Racey

Like the Gershwins, the music of John Kander was popularized on Broadway stages as well as in Hollywood films such as Funny LadyNew York, New York nd the film adaptations of Kander and Ebb's two biggest Broadway successes: Cabaret and Chicago. While 42nd Street Moon's salon included rarely heard songs from A Family Affair ("Harmony," "Summer Is Over"), 70, Girls, 70 ("See The Light"), The Happy Time ("The Life of the Party"), and Flora, The Red Menace ("Sing Happy), the inclusion of "Life Is" offered MacKellan the opportunity to announce that Zorba would be included in the company's upcoming season.

Alexandra Kaprielian, Stephanie Rhoads, and Karen Ziemba

Kander considers himself lucky to have had three muses to compose for: Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, and Karen Ziemba. While the second half of the evening included selections from The Rink (1984), Woman of the Year (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Curtains (2006), and The Scottsboro Boys (2010), I have to admit a special fondness for the music from Steel Pier (1997), which I have always thought to be one of Broadway's most underappreciated scores. The evening included some snippets from two Kander and Ebb shows that never made it to Broadway: their adaptations of Thornton Wilder's comedy, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Friedrich Durrenmatt's satirical drama, The Visit (which had originally been developed as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, who was forced to withdraw from the project when her husband became ill).

Kander and Ebb often wrote special material for Kaye Ballard, whose popularity as a singer on television variety shows often pigeonholed her talents due to her strong skills as a comedienne. Although the torch song "Maybe This Time" (which was added to the movie of Cabaret) was originally written for Ballard, television producers would not allow her to sing anything that serious. Another specialty song written for Ballard is performed by Liza Minnelli in the following clip from one of her appearances at Radio City Music Hall.

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Last Wednesday, the national touring company of Next To Normal settled into the Curran Theatre for a month-long run.  With music by Tom Kitt (and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey), the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is neatly framed by Mark Wendland's highly utilitarian unit set and the magnificent lighting design by Kevin Adams.

Jeremy Kushnier, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next To Normal
Photo by: Craig Schwartz

As directed by Michael Greif, Next To Normal focuses on a highly dysfunctional household whose mother has been battling bipolar disease for years. In the course of her marriage, Diane (Alice Ripley) has swallowed enough pills to fuel several large rave events. Throughout her days, she is haunted by the soul of her son that might have been, Gabe (Curt Hansen).

Gabe may have died in infancy, but had he lived he would be nearing his 18th birthday. In Diane's mind, he is very much alive and shows no signs of disappearing. Natalie, the daughter who followed several years later, is now in high school and a bundle of insecurity. Diane's husband, Dan (Asa Somers), has tried to be as accommodating and supportive as possible, but his wife's latest meltdown (after Diane flushed all her medications down the toilet) is working his very last nerve.

Whether she is dealing with a psychopharmacologist like Dr. Madden or a neurologist like Dr. Fine (both played by the likable Jeremy Kushnier), the exhausted Diane has grasped a painful truth that keeps eluding her doctors. Western medicine is not helping her get better. In fact, it may be making her worse.

Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley, and Asa Somers in Next To Normal
Photo by: Craig Schwartz

When a trial of electroconvulsive therapy nearly robs her of a part of her soul, Diane gets up the courage to tell her doctors to go fuck themselves. With increasing resolve, she leaves her husband and returns to live with her parents in an attempt to sort matters out by herself. Her departure leaves Natalie able to explore a relationship with a potential boyfriend (Preston Sadleir) and Diane's husband able to get close to, maybe even Next To Normal.

There is much to celebrate in Tom Kitt's and Brian Yorkey's riveting music, which received the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score. I found it especially interesting to hear a score that very much has its own voice and one in which the dominant vocal work goes to three tenors. Among the show's musical numbers, I particularly liked "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," "Perfect For You," "I'm Alive," and "How Could I Ever Forget?"

Although Alice Ripley offers a powerful dramatic performance as Diane, there were moments when I found myself worrying about the health of her voice. I'm happy to note that her understudy is the marvelous Pearl Sun (who co-starred in Long Story Short down at TheatreWorks in late 2008).

Although far from a traditional Broadway musical, Next To Normal is a dynamic piece of brave and gripping musical theatre. Performances continue at the Curran Theatre through February 20 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here's a brief trailer for the production:

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