Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Whole World In Their Hands

I was in the press room at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival last weekend when I learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. As I watched President Obama address the nation from the White House, I couldn't help noticing how somber and sober his speech was compared to George W. Bush's obscenely choreographed and testosterone driven action hero-style landing on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 to prematurely declare "Mission Accomplished."

A curious cultural point of reference: Did anyone notice that the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln was also the name of the warship in Puccini's opera, Madama Butterfly, on which the cheating Benjamin F. Pinkerton returned to Nagasaki to take Cio-Cio-San's child from her?

In his recent article in The Boston Phoenix entitled Obama's Rebirth, David S. Bernstein made the following salient observation:
"Obama, in just a few days' time, has made it necessary for Romney and other Republicans to choose -- kids' table, or grownups'. Now that the divide has been made clear, it's likely to extend to other nonsense talk, from Sarah Palin's 'Hells no' cry to not raise the debt ceiling, to calls for defunding Planned Parenthood over alleged racial eugenics. We'll see whether the GOP has any grownups left."
Never one to mince words, comedian Bill Maher asked: "How many Muslims does a black guy have to kill in one weekend before crackers climb down off his ass?"

Learning how President Obama handled the details of the situation (both before the actual raid on bin Laden's compound and in the days following the announcement of bin Laden's death) reminded me how comforting it is to know that there is a capable adult in the room. It also brought to mind an old spiritual  written by a Cherokee Indian named Obie Phillis while he was serving in World War II. In the following clip, it is sung by that great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.

I mention He's Got The Whole World In His Hands because I recently had the extreme pleasure of watching two consummate entertainers work their magic before San Francisco audiences. As with President Obama's performances earlier in the week, each performer was totally at ease in their own skin. Their humility and generosity shone through, especially when giving credit where credit was due.

Each was distinctly aware that their time onstage was not just about feeding their own ego, but about delivering something special to share with the audience. Each was a total professional who delivered a thoroughly satisfying show.

What made these two performances stand head and shoulders above so many others? Not what you might expect.
  • Each artist demonstrated a remarkable ability to roll with the punches. 
  • Each had chosen musical arrangements which enhanced their delivery of a song, rather than drowning it out. 
  • Each had an instant rapport with their audience, which deepened over the course of the evening.
  • Each artist's delivery benefited from exquisitely tailored sound design.
* * * * * * * * *
On Wednesday night at the Curran Theatre, Hugh Jackman made his entrance singing "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's legendary 1943 musical, Oklahoma! Radiating charisma, charm, and a buoyant masculinity, he soon segued into a medley that included songs like "One Night Only" (from 1981's Dreamgirls) and "I Won't Dance" (which, although written for 1934's musical flop, Three Sisters, was given a second life in the 1935 film version of Roberta where it was performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).

An avowed, old-fashioned theatrical ham, Jackman didn't hesitate to come out into the auditorium and have himself a grand old time with members of the audience. Whether laying a big hug and kiss on KCBS's Jan Wahl or constantly flirting with a seven year old girl in the first row, Jackman went out of his way to give numerous ticket-holders a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

There wasn't a technical snafu (ranging from a failed video projection to someone throwing a pair of fleece-lined handcuffs onstage) that could rattle him. After the back seam of his trousers split open while performing high kicks, Jackman good-naturedly changed his pants onstage with the help of a dresser as the audience went wild. His performance style can best be summed up with one of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from 1959's Gypsy: A Musical Fable:
"Let me entertain you,
Let me make you smile.
Let me do a few tricks,
Some old and then some new tricks,
I'm very versatile.
And if you're real good,
I'll make you feel good,
I want your spirit to climb.
So let me entertain you,
And we'll have a real good time,
Yes sir!
We'll have a real good time!"

Hugh Jackman

Jackman's song list ranged from Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel (1945) to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's arrangement of "Over the Rainbow," in which he was accompanied by a pair of didgeridoo players from Australia (Jackman talked about spending time with Aborigines in the Australian Outback during his college years).

Other show tunes ranged from a smashing rendition of "Luck Be A Lady" (from 1950's Guys and Dolls) to a medley of songs from 2003's The Boy From Oz (which marked his Broadway debut). However, I was most impressed when Jackman sang -- at quite a rapid clip -- all of the parts from "Rock Island" (the tongue-twisting opening number to Meredith Willson's 1957 Broadway hit, The Music Man). A very rare treat!

When rocker Richard Marx came onstage to perform with Jackman, he shyly confessed that  "I was kind of hoping you sucked at something." Marx's hopes were quickly dashed to smithereens.

Hugh Jackman

During his dance numbers, Jackman delivered enough bumps, grinds, and pelvic thrusts to satisfy everyone in the Curran Theatre. With two women (Merle Dandridge and Angel Reda) providing musical backup and Steve Lord appearing as "Sven, the fitness trainer," Hugh Jackman in Concert allowed the popular entertainer to sing, dance, and laugh at himself for nearly two hours. In addition to some beautiful video sequences with film clips from his career and shots of Australian scenery, it should be noted that Jackman's show was beautifully lit from start to finish by the great Ken Billington.

What makes Jackman's performance style so infectious is that, in an age where many entertainers start to take themselves too seriously, he's having the time of his life and wants everyone else to share in the fun. If you don't believe me, watch this clip from his appearance at the 2003 San Diego Comic-Con International convention.

* * * * * * * * *
Things were a bit more sedate over at The Rrazz Room where Betty Buckley was entertaining show tune lovers with an act entitled For The Love of Broadway. Famous for her numerous roles in musicals (1776, Cats, Triumph of Love, Pippin, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy), Buckley recently co-starred with Tovah Feldshuh in the Dallas Theater Center's production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Equally at home working in film, television, Broadway and in cabaret settings, Ms. Buckley has recently started teaching young music students in Fort Worth. After years of performing experience, she knows her way around a song and takes great pride in working with arrangers to come up with something that matches her visions of colors and paintings she associates with any particular song.

Whether talking about how she described one of Claude Monet's paintings of water lilies to a musical arranger working on Ray Noble's 1934 hit, "The Very Thought of You," or how Elaine Stritch has been a constant source of comfort and inspiration in her career, Buckley is the kind of confident and intuitive artist whose life experience quickly adds new dimensions to a song like Avenue Q's "There's A Fine, Fine Line" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "We Kiss In The Shadow" (from The King and I) and "This Nearly Was Mine" (from South Pacific).

Betty Buckley (Photo by: Scogin Mayo)
Buckley is equally comfortable with a comic song like "You've Got Possibilities" (from It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman) and a specialty song written for her entitled "When I Belt." Old standards like "The Way You Look Tonight," "I Could Write A Book," "This Can't Be Love," and "It Might As Well Be Spring" are delivered with a great sense of loving care and respect. 

Few singers ever capture the lyrical yearning of Lerner & Loewe's beautiful "Come To Me, Bend To Me" (from Brigadoon) or the lusty charm of "I Never Know When To Say When" (from 1958's Goldilocks) with quite the style that Buckley does. Using a provocative minor-key arrangement written by Kenny Werner that was as shocking as it was wonderful, she sang Lerner & Loewe's classic, "I've Grown Accustomed To His Face," in a way that made one completely rethink the emotions behind the song.

In an act whose musical riches ranged from 1934's Blame It On My Youth to Billy Joel's deeply introspective "And So It Goes," Buckley charmed her audience with an evening of music making that was enriched and enhanced by the magnificent work of Christian Jacob on piano and Peter Barshay on bass. From a musical standpoint, it was a joy to have an adult in the driver's seat.

No comments: