Friday, July 29, 2011

Awkward Situations

Frequently hailed as the first of Cole Porter's "list songs," "Let's Do It" was written for a 1928 Broadway musical entitled "Paris." Over the years, certain lines, deemed to be politically incorrect, have been excised from the song.  These include:
"Chinks do it, Japs do it,
Up in Lapland little Laps do it..."
But more than 80 years after its creation, when taken as a whole, Porter's lyric remains brilliant:
"When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
When the little bluebell
At the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring Ding dong Ding dong
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Starts a tune to the moon up above
It is nature that is all
Simply telling us to fall in love

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

I've heard that lizards and frogs do it
Layin' on a rock
They say that roosters do it
With a doodle and cock

Some Argentines, without means do it
I hear even Boston beans do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

The most refined lady bugs do it
When a gentleman calls
Moths in your rugs they do it
What's the use of moth balls?
The chimpanzees in the zoos do it,
Some courageous kangaroos do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

I'm sure sometimes on the sly you do it
Maybe even you and I might do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love."
With the possible exception of a miserable dwarf named Alberich (remember Alberich?), everyone wants to be loved. Nebbishes, nerds, and engineers want it. So do meeskites and meshugas, geeks and dweebs. While popular mythology insists that it's easy to fall in love at first sight, reality tells us quite another story.

The greatest flirt may be an utterly superficial loser. The most honest and loyal companion a person could hope for (other than a dog) might have no talent for seduction. The title song to Stephen Sondheim's failed 1964 musical, Anyone Can Whistle, describes the challenge faced by a genius who has trouble being a regular person. In the following clip, the great Cleo Laine sings "Anyone Can Whistle"

Some characters whine about their inability to attract a potential lover. Others bemoan their great talent at ruining any chance at romance.

Based on William Gibson's 1958 drama, Two For The Seesaw, the 1973 Broadway musical Seesaw boasted a book by Michael Bennett, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. One of the big numbers for its female lead, Gittel Mosca, was the song "Nobody Does It Like Me." In the following clip, Goldie Hawn puts a delightfully comedic twist on a song originally written for a very angry and frustrated young woman:

Three new dramedies put the search for true love under a curious lens with appealing and often poignant results. Although each takes place in a different country, each is locked to a specific period in its local culture.

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In August 2010, TheatreWorks included a new musical written by Kim RosenstockWill Connolly, and Michael Mitnick in its annual New Works Festival. Less than a year later, the official world premiere of Fly By Night opened the company's 42nd season. To hail Fly By Night as a delightful new chamber musical whose characters all meet curious twists of fate during the great Northeast Blackout of November 9, 1965 would miss a very important point.

Fly By Night is that rare musical whose audience quickly embraces -- and genuinely cares about -- every single one of its characters (including those impersonated by the show's shape-shifting narrator). Each of Rosenstock's six main characters takes huge personal risks and goes through a tremendous emotional arc over the course of the evening. They are:
  • Mr. McClam (James Judy), a recent widower who is struggling to hold on to fond memories of his deceased wife (who introduced him to opera by taking him to a performance of Verdi's La Traviata).
  • Harold (Ian Leonard), Mr. McClam's nebbishy son, an aspiring songwriter who carries around his mother's old guitar to play (when he is not working in a sandwich shop in midtown Manhattan).
  • Crabble (Michael McCormick), Harold's boss at the sandwich shop. A former military air traffic controller, Crabble has bigger dreams than the daily routine of "meat, mustard, cheese, and lettuce."
Harold (Ian Leonard) and Crabble (Michael McCormick)
making sandwiches in Fly By Night (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

  • Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a pretty young woman who leaves North Dakota and heads to Manhattan in hopes of becoming an actress.
  • Joey Storms (Keith Pinto), an aspiring playwright living off his trust fund who hires Daphne to be the star of his new show.
  • Miriam (Kristin Stokes), Daphne's older sister who has been contentedly working as a waitress and living at home with her mother. When Daphne asks her mother if she can take her Dad's old car to New York, her mother insists that Miriam accompany Daphne to New York in order to get her out of the house.
Miriam (Kristin Stokes) has her fortune told by a
mysterious stranger (Wade McCollum) in
Fly By Night (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As directed by Bill Fennelly using the intricate unit set designed by Dane Laffrey (which has been sensitively lit by Paul Toben), Fly By Night quickly establishes several sets of overlapping triangles that seem headed toward a crisis:
  • When Joey (who can't stop rewriting the script for his play) and Daphne continue one of their endless rehearsals at Harold and Daphne's apartment, an already disillusioned Harold walks in on the pair as they kiss while rehearsing their lines.
  • Although they can't seem to communicate with each other, Harold and his father each both end up visiting the diner where Miriam is working as a waitress on the graveyard shift.
  • After Harold and Daphne meet cute, fall in "like" and get engaged, Harold falls head over heels for Miriam and discovers what true love really feels like.

Miriam (Kristin Stokes) and her father (Wade McCollum) practice
counting the stars in the sky above North Dakota (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Filled with solid laughs, genuine pathos, and bittersweet moments of honesty, Fly By Night derives its emotional strength from a group of obviously flawed characters whose neuroses could easily doom them to a miserable existence but who (with one notable exception) stubbornly cling to the belief that things will improve. While each actor has distinct moments in which to shine (narrator Wade McCollum rules the stage in a series of rapidly changing characterizations), it is James Judy's lonely widower whose second act solo becomes the highlight of the evening.

James Judy as Mr. McClam (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

There are many ways in which the size and shape of Fly By Night reminded me of another chamber musical set in New York (2008's A Catered Affair). The big difference, however, is that while A Catered Affair was an artistic success, Fly By Night has a much better chance of becoming both a popular and commercial success.

Fly By Night is an extremely economical show to build that requires only a handful of musicians. Five out of its seven characters can be portrayed by reasonably young actors. Looking beyond its world premiere production, it has a much stronger future in regional theatres and university theatre departments.

If you consider yourself a connoisseur of musical theatre, you won't want to miss it. Performances of Fly By Night continue through August 13 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (you can order tickets here).

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A bit later in the 1960s and on the other side of the world, The Matchmaker deals with a different cluster of emotionally damaged and socially inept souls. Yankele Bride (Adir Miller) is a mysterious Holocaust survivor who makes his living trying to find love for lonely people in Israel. A realist who nevertheless hopes to create happy endings, he cautions each prospective suitor that his job is to give his clients what they need rather than what they want.

Although Yankele pines for Clara (Maya Dagan), a pretty, intelligent Polish Jew who coaches Yankele's prospective suitors in how to present themselves to a potential date, Clara is plagued with nightmares and dental pain resulting from medical experiments performed on her in a German concentration camp.Pretty to look at, she is distinctly damaged goods.

Among their close friends are a group of Jewish dwarfs who met at Josef Mengele’s clinic in Auschwitz and now run a movie theatre in a seedy part of Haifa. One of the dwarfs, Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), is a client of Yankele's.

Yankele and Clara also host late night card games in Clara's apartment for Holocaust survivors who are afraid to sleep because of their nightmares. What little gambling takes place is harmless, even if it is against the law.

One day, after Yankele meets a scrawny Israeli teenager named Arik Burstein, he visits Arik's apartment and discovers that the boy's father is a close friend from "the old country" who also survived the Holocaust. After learning of Arik's passion for detective stories, Yankele hires the teenager to help him spot potential clients.

Yankele (Adir Miller), Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), and Arik (Tuval Shafir)

Although Arik shows great promise at tailing the people Yankele needs to know more about, he is also being pressured on the home front. Tamara (Neta Porat), the very sexy Iraqi-Jewish-American cousin of his best friend Benny (Tom Gal), has the hots for Arik. Strangely, Arik seems not just uninterested, but totally clueless about sex.

Meanwhile, Meir the librarian (Dror Keren) wants to meet a woman who is smaller than him. Although Arik had referred Meir to Yankele as a prospective client, the librarian has completely misunderstood Clara's role as a dating coach and set his heart on her instead of on the Jewish dwarf, Sylvia.

Meir (Dror Keren) and Arik (Tuval Shafir)

Meir's limited social skills and crippling neuroses make it impossible for him to handle Clara's gentle rejection. When Arik accidentally tells him that people are playing cards for money at Clara's apartment, Meir seizes on the illegality of the situation to exact his revenge on Yankele.

Director Avi Nesher weaves the subplot of Israeli youth (whom no one will talk to about the Holocaust) who are trying to come of age with the fact that they are surrounded by much sadder (and not always wiser) adults who are unable to forget the horrors they witnessed and survived in Nazi Germany. This is a film about deeply wounded people struggling to keep their dignity in complex relationships that are nothing like what they may seem to be on the surface.

Refreshing, poignant, and unavoidably tragic, The Matchmaker is a most impressive dramedy. Although there are scenes in which many titles flash by faster than one can read them, the actors have no trouble communicating their situation to the viewer. Here's the trailer:

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Both Fly By Night and The Matchmaker deal with people whose emotions are often crippled by neuroses and inhibitions. But what happens when a romantic lead is so uninhibited that she thinks nothing of running out of the house without any clothes on and crossing Paris stark naked on the Métro in her eagerness to run an errand? Or buying some large crabs for dinner and "liberating" them back to the ocean?

Sara Forestier as the irrepressible Baya Benmahmoud

Written by Michel LeClerc and Bya Kismi (and directed by LeClerc), The Names of Love stars the exuberant Sara Forestier as Baya Benmahmoud, a young Algerian woman who has not just embraced the 1960s motto "Make Love, Not War," but enthusiastically made it her personal credo. Baya takes great delight in using her sexual skills to seduce conservatives and right-wing politicians and, during sex, convert them to more left-leaning philosophies. When Baya crosses paths with Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a shy Jewish socialist who specializes in performing animal autopsies, all hell breaks loose.

LeClerc's film goes to great lengths to explain each lover's family roots, with good reason.
  • Arthur's mother (Michèle Moretti) is a stern Jewish mathematician. His father (Jacques Boudet) is a nuclear physicist who served in Algeria with the French army.
  • Conversely, Baya's mother (Carole Franck), is an aging hippie who strongly opposes nuclear power. Her father (Zinedine Soualem) is a sensitive and talented Algerian artist whose family was massacred by the French. Mohamed is also a regular "Mr. Fix-It" who has little sense of self-worth, but finds great happiness in helping people.
The Names of Love pokes lots of fun at contemporary French culture. Whether pointing out the challenges that arise in Arab-French relationships, from women wearing a hijab, from anti-Semitism or simply from Baya's intoxicating approach to sexual liberation, LeClerc has fashioned a good-hearted romantic comedy that is every bit as rowdy as it is intelligent. To some, Arthur and Baya may seem totally mismatched. But I'm one of those people who strongly believes that opposites attract.

Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya (Sara Forestier
have dinner with Arthur's parents.

The Names of Love won my heart in one particular scene where the hopelessly methodical Arthur is struggling to find a way to do something nice for his totally impulsive girlfriend. Suddenly realizing that helping Baya's father might be the key to her heart, Arthur shows remarkable insight in the way he gently approaches Mohamed and asks him for a favor.

Understanding that Mohamed is much too shy and self-effacing to ever dream of exhibiting his paintings to the public, Arthur frames his request as a desperate plea for help:  someone has stolen a whole bunch of paintings from his offices and he needs Mohamed's help to cover up all the white spaces that were left exposed on the walls where the picture frames previously hung.

Baya (Sara Forestier) and Arthur (Jacques Gamblin)

That tiny subplot may be one of the quieter, gentler moments in The Names of Love but, as far as I'm concerned, it makes the rest of this highly energetic film ever so much more appealing. Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin shine as the two mismatched lovers. The rest of the film is a romp and a frolic. Here's the trailer:

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