Friday, December 23, 2011

Cheerfully Contributing To The War on Christmas

Humor is one of life's greatest coping mechanisms. Whether struggling with seasonal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any number of life's bitter disappointments, the ability to laugh can go a long way toward inverting a frown so that it is transformed into a smile.

Those who are blessed with a robust sense of humor, a taste for irony, and a hunger for iconoclastic moments have it made in the shade, In Mary Poppins (a 1964 movie musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), veteran comedian Ed Wynn appeared as Bert's eternally ebullient Uncle Albert.

Ed Wynn also voiced the character of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's 1951 full-length animated version of Alice in Wonderland. Together with the March Hare and the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter taught Alice how much fun it can be to celebrate one's un-birthday.

While self-righteous Christians can't stop grousing about the Obama family's nonsectarian Christmas card (and House Speaker John Boehner can't let go of his deep-seated desire to become a 21st century version of Ebeneezer Scrooge), plenty of people are having themselves a rollicking good time mocking Christmas. If you watch the first two minutes of the San Francisco Theatre Pub's SuperStar holiday event, you'll hear Stuart Bousel do his bit to put the Christ back in Christmas in a way that could make Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin soil themselves simultaneously!

As David Sirota so eloquently explained on
"Like a narcissist’s souped-up 4-by-4, this turbocharged colossus of self-righteous indignation makes a lot of noise and leaves a mess in its wake, but ultimately says a lot more about its drivers’ pitiable insecurities than anything else. These zealots are interested in pretending their fellow Christians are somehow oppressed, contradictory facts be damned. In propagating such an illusion, they’re not earnestly embodying their religion’s missionary spirit. Instead, they’re manufacturing victimhood, all to gin up sympathy and create a rationale to continue ramrodding their theology down everyone else’s throats. That some feel this need to push their faith with such craven tactics speaks volumes about the nature of spiritual self-doubt today."
Thankfully, comedians like Jon Stewart are always happy to put the War on Christmas in its proper context.  Stewart, in fact, recently declared his own War on Christmas (subtitled "Operation Godless Shit Storm").

Each December, the holiday season brings a lineup of traditional Christmas entertainment (The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, Handel's Messiah, and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel) as well as events that might be referred to as "un-Christmas" classics. Taken separately, they can be used to dampen the forced sweetness of the holidays. Attending more than one of these events is usually as effective as injecting insulin.

* * * * * * * * *
What happens when a beloved artist or comedic group starts to become too familiar? Perhaps a doting audience of loyal fans has watched the same material be performed over an increasing number of years. Perhaps that doting (and aging) audience is looking for less shock value and more nostalgic coziness.

An act can be freshened up with new material or it can try to age gracefully. Even though they've been performing their holiday show ("Oy Vey in a Manger") for Bay area audiences for several years, The Kinsey Sicks have never been interested in doing anything gracefully. Keenly attuned to the changing political tides, they have insisted upon staying relevant.

In fact, the Kinseys have become so concerned with the lack of a viable Republican candidate for the 2012 Presidential election that they're about to run for office.

The Kinseys returned to the Herbst Theatre on December 17 with some notable differences in their show. Instead of hoping that guests would arrive for their holiday party, the Kinseys pretended they were trying to sell their house in a market where many neighboring homes had been foreclosed upon. As they readied their living room for a realtor's tour, they stressed that, in the current parlance, their home was being referred to as a "Bethlehem steal!"

The Kinsey Sicks put their home up for sale in
the 2011 version of  Oy Vey in a Manager

Often, when reading up on the backgrounds of the four men who form the Kinsey Sicks (Irwin Keller and Ben Schatz are lawyers), I come across a delicious tidbit, like this story from Jeff Manabat's childhood:
"When I was a kid, there was a dress hanging out somewhere. I think my mom was buying first communion presents for somebody. I was seven years old, or six, I don't remember. And I had just watched Mary Poppins. I saw Mary Poppins with her big umbrella and her big dress floating around and I thought, 'If I wear that dress, I could float around, too.' Because I wanted to fly, and my identical twin brother and I saw it, and we were just like, 'We want to wear that dress!' So, we put it on -- we didn't put it on together, we put it on one at a time -- and then we started jumping off of the couch in the dress in the hopes that the wind would catch the dress and we'd be floating around the living room. So, that was my first experience in drag."
The Kinsey Sicks in Oy Vey in a Manger

This year's performance included some of the Kinseys' traditional holiday chestnuts (I'm Dreaming of a Betty White ChristmasSoylent NightHave Yourself A Harried Little Christmas, and 'Tis The Season To Drink Stoli). As expected, each of the girls had their special moments onstage:
One simple shift in the order of songs had a surprisingly strong impact on the evening. In past years, the Kinseys have opened many shows with their theme song, "Dragapella." Based on the famous Hallelujah Chorus (composed by George Frideric Handel for his 1741 oratorio, Messiah), "Dragapella" demonstrates how the Kinseys take familiar pieces of music, rewrite the lyrics, and turn them into brilliant pieces of satire.

This year, the Kinseys moved "Dragapella" down to the closing slot (slut?) of the evening, which brilliantly summed up the group's talents and punctuated the performance in a way that said "We made this style and now we own it!"

* * * * * * * * *
Like the Kinsey Sicks, Sharon McNight has built a loyal following in San Francisco and other gay meccas. With the voice of a big. brassy belter, she's made countless appearances at AIDS benefits and helped to keep alive a tradition of Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads in the style of Oscar Brand, Sophie Tucker, and Rusty Warren.

McNight's CDs include titles like Songs to Offend Almost Everyone, "Offensive, Too," and The Sophie Tucker Songbook. Often described as a singing fag hag, she boasts of being one of the few "real' women to impersonate Bette Davis as part of her act.

Currently on the faculty at Yale University's Cabaret Conference, Sharon has been singing professionally for nearly 30 years. The following clip (taken from a performance for the New York Sheet Music Society) gives a good idea of McNight's intensity and focus when she is at the top of her game.

McNight touched down at The Rrazz Room this week for two performances of her holiday cabaret show entitled Twisted Xmas: A Druid's View of the Holidays. Although she included such favorites as "Merry Christmas from the Family" and "San Francisco Bye-Bye," while imitating Mae West she accidentally hit on a disturbing truth.

West liked to claim that "When I'm good, I'm very good. And when I'm bad I'm even better." McNight can be a fearless musical comedian. Like Mae West, when Sharon is good, she can be very good, indeed

Unfortunately, when McNight is not in top form, she's a very uneven performer (depending on how inebriated her audience is, this often becomes a nonissue).  Alas, there were too many moments during Tuesday's opening night performance when McNight seemed in need of a strong director. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sharon McNight recently appeared at the Rrazz Room in
Twisted Xmas: A Druid's View of the Holidays

* * * * * * * * *
The early reading experiences of many children exposed them to the wit and imagination of Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). Whether delighting in such books as Horton Hears A Who! or The Cat in the Hat. Geisel's books gave many children their first awareness of how much fun it can be to create rhymes.

First published in 1957, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! has gone through numerous adaptations. In 1966, it was made into an animated television special with Boris Karloff as the narrator. In 2000, Jim Carrey starred in a live-action version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

But it is the musical adaptation by Mel Marvin (with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason) that has been delighting audiences for more than a decade. First presented at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, a revised production directed by Jack O'Brien at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 1998 added some of Albert Hague's songs from the 1966 television special.

Since then, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical! (which uses the original choreography by John DeLuca and Bob Richard) has been box office gold. In the following clip, the Grinch (played by Stefan Karl ) is interviewed prior to a run of performances in Houston.

An Icelandic actor who has had great fun in the role, Karl arrived in town in the traveling production with sets designed by  John Lee Beatty, costumes by Robert Morgan and wigs by Thomas Augustine. According to Seth Bazacas (who appears as Young Max):
"Back when the book was printed, you could only use black and white and red (and from that you could get grays and pinks). So, other than the Grinch himself being green, they used that color palette across the board, even on the set which is kind of interesting. The color palette they’ve chosen is very true to the book.  It’s like you literally fall into the pages of that book, which is a really neat concept. Every prop, even down to the littlest packages and little toys, looks just like things that you can go through the Dr. Seuss book and see pictures of and point out. It’s really cool."

Directed by by Matt August (with an energetic cast), this 80-minute show is narrated by Bob Lauder as  Old Max (the Grinch's dog) as he looks back on the night the Grinch tried to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville. As evidenced by the following clip, there isn't an ounce of subtlety in the show (and that's cause for celebration).

Bailey Ryon was absolutely delightful as Cindy-Lou Who (as was Seth Bazacas as young Max). However, the show truly belongs to the actor playing the Grinch. Although there isn't any video available of Stefan Karl's super campy rendition of "One of a Kind," in the following clip you can watch him perform the song during a publicity stop at a radio station.

Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical! continues at the Golden Gate Theatre through December 29 (click here to order tickets). Attendance is strongly recommended (it's the least you can do to help continue the War on Christmas considering that Carole Shorenstein Hays and the show's producers are among the holiday season's true "job creators").

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Real Men Eat Ibex

Perceptions and definitions of masculinity vary from time to time and culture to culture. Throughout history, popular concepts of masculinity have been reflected in paintings and sculptures. Some are commissioned portraits, others created from inspiration

From Chinese scrolls depicting heavily costumed warriors to sculptures like Michelangelo's David, masculinity has often been seen in the guise of an athlete or soldier.

A classic piece of beefcake art by the French artist, Stefan

The ancient Greeks gave us heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. Following the invention of the printing press, novelists were able to create fictional heroes ranging from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Tevye and Tarzan; from Jean Valjean to Zorro and James Bond.

The advent of film and television went a long way toward shaping the public's visual perception of masculinity.  From Rudolph Valentino to Ralph Kramden, from Robert Young's starring role in Father Knows Best to Hugh Jackman's characterization of Wolverine, men have been celebrated whose appearance spanned a wide range of virility, hirsutism, courage, and sophistication.

A militaristic image created by the French artist, Stefan

How men idealize other men has long been an inspiration for homoerotic art. The following image is a tame gateway to the intense work of Sadao Hasegawa, who was noted for his erotically-charged drawings of muscular Asian men in bondage.

A drawing by graphic artist Sadao Hasegawa

Much the same could be said for Tom of Finland, whose aesthetic has long been the backbone of the leather subculture.

Poster art for an homage to Tom of Finland's work

Many men are drawn to bodybuilding as a way to combat their low self-esteem. For years, Charles Atlas marketed his products to teenagers who felt like the stereotypical "98-pound weakling."

As bodybuilding became perceived as more of a sport (and, to some, an art form), it triggered new levels of fascination. The growing popularity of bodybuilding magazines, musclebound superheroes in comic books, the sexual revolution, anabolic steroids and other "diet supplements" -- combined with images from films like 1976's Rocky and 1977's Pumping Iron -- helped to build a much larger audience for muscular men with pumped-up pecs, bulging biceps, and chiseled abs.

As men's fashion advertising moved from the staid images seen in the Sears catalog to showing more skin and attitude, the concept of "manly men" split off in many directions. Some chose to adorn themselves with piercings and tattoos; others opted to express themselves through their wardrobe.

From Castro clones to big old bears, men seemed intent on celebrating the variety of body types. There were, of course, some notable exceptions.

* * * * * * * * *
On November 27, 1929, just four weeks after the Wall Street stock market crashed, a new musical entitled Fifty Million Frenchmen opened on Broadway. The score by Cole Porter (which included "You Do Something To Me") inspired Irving Berlin to call it "the best musical comedy I have seen in years."

Libby Holman recorded one of the show's hit songs, "Find Me A Primitive Man," which is used as the background music for the following montage of clips from Johnny Weissmuller's old Tarzan movies.

Several months ago, while doing some research for my review of Lavinia Currier's new African adventure film (Oka!), I started to read about a movie she released in 1998 entitled Passion in the Desert. Based on a short story by Balzac, the action takes place in 1798, shortly after Napoleon began his invasion of Egypt.

Poster art for Passion in the Desert

When I finally had a chance to rent Passion in the Desert from Netflix, I was bowled over by the experience. Aleksei Rodionov's gorgeous cinematography and José Nieto's original score provided a rare exotic foundation for one of the strangest love stories you'll ever see on film.

The story concerns a French soldier (Ben Daniels) who has been assigned to escort and protect an artist (Michel Piccoli) as he sketches famous Egyptian sculptures and monuments. The artist is an eccentric old coot.

After Mameluk tribesmen attack the French military encampment, the soldier and artist become separated from their comrades and wander alone in the Sahara. After Augustin goes off in search of help, the artist commits suicide by drinking his paints. Starved and nearing death, Augustin is miraculously saved by a leopard that attacks a Bedouin intent on killing the exhausted soldier.

Filmed on location in the ruins of Petra, Jordan and the caves of Moab, Utah, Passion in the Desert is a feast for the eyes. More interesting, however, is the transformation in Augustin's relationship with the leopard.

In order to stay alive, Augustin learns how to eat raw meat from the carrion of a freshly killed ibex and drink from a pool of water (just like a leopard does). As loneliness and the company of a big cat start to eat at his mental health, the soldier begins to fall in love with Simoom. Upon seeing Simoom playing with another leopard, he starts to become jealous.

Much of Passion in the Desert involves Augustin's slow but steady disintegration until he has reverted to a more primitive form of man. The following clip gives a solid feel for the movie's physical beauty -- as well as its raw honesty about the necessities of nature.

* * * * * * * * *
While Passion in the Desert shows a man discovering his more primitive instincts, Mark Pellington's new film, I Melt With You, examines the consequence of wasted masculinity. Following in the footsteps of such soul-searching reunion films as 1983's The Big Chill, I Melt With You takes top honors for one of the worst marketing decisions in Hollywood history.

Apparently some fool involved with this movie thought that Christmas (the time of year when people are most vulnerable to suicidal ideation) would be the perfect slot for releasing a film in which four aging party boys execute a suicide pact. Ironically, that's the least of this film's problems.

Richard (Thomas Jane) and Jonathan (Rob Lowe)
are the last two standing in I Melt With You

Minus the presence of a black man (who is usually the first to die at the hands of a monster, ghoul, or serial killer), it is the gay character in I Melt With You who is the first to succumb. But let's not quibble about such a tired cliché for, besides being emotionally rancid, intellectually bankrupt, and stupefyingly unnecessary, this movie is far too pathetic to even be called a cliché. In his writer's statement, Glenn Porter explains that:
"I Melt With You was more of an emotional state I hoped to purge from my psyche with some form of therapy than a dramatic piece I expected to be seen by anyone. Specifically, it's a story about anti-heroes who never lived up to their own expectations and come to believe, over the course of a drug-fueled weekend, there is one way they can honor the men they failed to become.  It's the ultimate escapist fantasy. Generally, it's a story about men and their failures, lies, rationalizations, and the games of Peter Pan self-delusion they play and have to reconcile with in mid-life. We all dream big, but reality is usually less thrilling. The film, I think, also captures the joy of friendship for many guys born around the mid-1960s, which was often accompanied by music and altered states."
Christian McKay, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe and Thomas Jane
reunite for a weekend in Big Sur in I Melt With You

Originally conceived as "an existential horror film," I Melt With You was shot in sequence over 18 days on a bare-bones budget. As Pellington explains:
"I Melt With You was designed and conceived as an allegory about male friendship and failure, set inside the powerful bonds of memory and promise.  It is a tale, on the surface, of old friends being confronted by their youthful promise, and shifts into an exploration of the dark side, the weakness of the male psyche and men who ultimately hide from themselves and their responsibilities. I was interested in exploring how middle-aged men become far different creatures than they imagined they would be, and how they deal with it. The film asks a lot of questions about the real life experiences of males. Questions like: How do we, as men, come to terms with not becoming what we set out to be? How do we handle the powerlessness and guilt connected to failure?  How do we cope with the fear of losing our identity?
I was looking to make a raw, visceral, music-driven film that expressed where I was in my life, to take the creative process back to a more intuitive place of directorial freedom, and get out and shoot something down and dirty, yet meaningful -- quickly. I worked on the script with its creator, the writer Glenn Porter, and we received input and support from executive producer Neil Labute. This is a film that loves music and understands the role it plays in the highs and lows of life. We kind of embraced the punk rock spirit of 'Fuck it, let’s just do it ourselves.'”
Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay, and Thomas Jane
in I Melt With You
"The movie has aesthetic influences in 1980's new wave/punk rock, and the aggressive cut-up poetics of William Burroughs. It was inspired by the likes of Cassavetes' Husbands and Mike Leigh’s Naked. It is quasi-experimental, intense, and personal film for me, a 180-degree turn from my last work. We were all a team, a small band of actors and crew who took our collective influences and life experience and threw it into a harrowing experimental blender, exploring the vagaries of friendship, regret, shame, failure, greed, and the desperate search for hope.
At the end of the day I Melt With You is just a movie. However, it is not for the squeamish. It's the type of film that is going to generate controversy and garner deeply felt polarized reactions. I very much look forward to yours."
Let's start with the obvious. I Melt With You is a loathsome, overindulgent piece of egomaniacal shit that would never have been produced without some star names attached to it. As one critic correctly noted, "By the end you feel nothing, not even contempt."

Rolling down the side of a sand dune

With those points as psychological landmarks, let's look at the four middle-aged white men whose misfortunes propel this film to its easily-anticipated end.
  • Richard (Thomas Jane) is a failed novelist who supports himself as a disillusioned schoolteacher. Determined to remain a bachelor, he is content to have lots of flings but no lasting relationships with women.
  • Ron (Jeremy Piven) is the unhappy dickhead who, even when screwing people over in college, always had enough money to bail his friends out of jail. Nicknamed "Rat Ron," he is now an investment banker who, although he genuinely loves his wife and two daughters,  knows he is in deep shit with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
  • Jonathan (Rob Lowe) is a failed physician who focused his practice on accepting bribes to write prescriptions for wealthy addicts. Proud to announce that "The doctor is in," he is hardly the poster boy for managed care. Always ready, willing, and able to supply party drugs for his friends, Jonathan  arrives for the weekend with an arsenal of pills and enough cocaine to give a horse a seizure. Thoroughly debauched and spiritually dead, he has no trouble swallowing fistfuls of pills while trying to numb the emotional pain of being a divorced dad whose son barely knows him.
  • Tim (Christian McKay) is the most sensitive of the four men (even if his negligence killed his sister and his boyfriend). His three-way with a local swinging couple is, at best, laughable.
The four assholes of the apocalypse

Although Carla Gugino has a thankless role as a local cop, much of Pellington's movie is at least visually impressive. There are beautiful coastal shots of Big Sur, plenty of nice angles within the quartet's impressive rental house, and lots of jagged motion action meant to capture the distorted sensations of a weekend fueled by too many drugs and too much booze.

A drug-fueled moment from I Melt With You

If there is anything to be gleaned from the psychological trainwreck of I Melt With You, it's that for all of their hedonistic bravado, none of Bellington's antiheroes has the courage to seek professional help. These are men who were assholes in college and have remained assholes well into middle age.

Perhaps that statement is too harsh and suggests that Richard, Jonathan, Ron, and Timothy haven't evolved. They have evolved -- from angry, idealistic assholes into sarcastic, self-destructive scumbags for whom death is the only logical way to respond to their college-era "blood brothers" oath.

I don't doubt that this loathsome film will find a following (fans of its four male leads will want to see their idols getting down and dirty).  Unfortunately, it has the dramatic impact and entertainment value of an extended bout of explosive diarrhea. Here's the trailer:

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Damsel In Distress With Dandruff

The news of playwright/politician Vaclav Havel's death brings a sobering reminder that creative people can change the world. While scientists and engineers find new ways to improve our lives, athletes and entertainers inspire us.

But writers make us think.

While some people like to shop, chat, or play video games on the Internet, I use it primarily for reading, research, and writing. Not only has the Internet allowed easy access to newspapers and magazines in electronic format, it has catapulted self publishing into a brave new world populated by bloggers free from old media restrictions of word counts, censored vocabulary, and a publication's "editorial guidelines."

Comedy writers keep us laughing.  Speechwriters frame a politician's message. But, as more and more people have taken to blogging, I've found myself increasingly happy to discover a wealth of new voices and ideas through the powerful reach of the Internet.

Playwrights are a special breed who, on a good night, have the ability to lift an audience out of their everyday lives (and sometimes even out of their seats) while transporting them to freshly imagined worlds and situations which challenge their perceptions and force them to engage their critical thinking skills. In prefacing his year-end wrap-up piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled "Without Hype, Playwrighting Thrives," Charles Isherwood made the following observation:
"For the second year running I quickly totted up my list of my favorite nights at the theater before noticing, to my happy surprise, that the lineup didn’t include a single revival. The inspiriting truth is that, while most of the media attention and dollars continue to go to the overhyped fare that is more branded entertainment than art, American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths is in surprisingly strong shape."
Isherwood's comment inspired me to look back at some of the evenings I spent in Bay area theatres this year.  Skipping over the classics (plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Williams, and Albee), I decided to look for relatively new works (world premieres, West Coast premieres, Bay Area premieres, etc.) whose theatrical magic rested on a foundation of solid writing.

Bypassing spectacles like Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil's Totem -- as well as revivals and touring companies of Broadway musicals like Hair, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, Finian's Rainbow, My Fair Lady, Avenue Q, Billy Eliot the Musical and Fela! -- I noted the plays that had tickled me, challenged me, and whose unique voices had intrigued me. They include:
While readings of works in progress are presented each year by Theatreworks, Magic Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, SFPlayhouse, and Playwrights Foundation (as well as some exceptional work written on short notice during Playground's season), nothing grabs me quite like a well written, beautifully directed, and brilliantly acted piece of theatre. Usually, by this time of year, most producers are relying on the box office safety of traditional holiday fare: The Nutcracker, Hansel and Gretel, A Christmas Carol, etc.

Not Stuart Bousel.  In the past three years, the San Francisco-based playwright, director, actor, and producer has been involved in the production of more than 60 dramatic readings, semi-staged and fully-staged productions. Under the auspices of No Nude Men Productions, Bousel decided to finish off the year with a program of one-act plays by Bay area talents.

Playwright/producer/actor/director Stuart Bousel

According to the promotional blurb for Ladies in Waiting, each of the three fantasies about distressed damsels was "a supernatural tale exploring the varied feminine archetypes that form the foundation of our society's gender stereotypes and biases."  The order in which they were performed took audiences from a twist on a popular fairy tale to a nightmarish prison fantasy and ended up with a rollicking semi-Noir farce.

The performance of Ladies In Waiting that I attended took place on a chilly Friday night in the middle of the holiday season. While others were getting drunk at office parties, shopping for Christmas gifts and having dinners with friends, a small theatre in San Francisco's Tenderloin was packed with a young audience eager to enjoy the dramatic equivalent of a tasting menu from the theatre of the absurd.

Poster art for Ladies in Waiting

While many have sought to label the theatrical art form as "a fabulous invalid," it's amazing how effective that invalid can be at explaining complex situations, disarming people's defenses and, in a very short time, changing people's minds. As long as one person is capable of performing and another is capable of reacting, theatre will never die.

Written by Claire Rice and directed by Stuart Bousel, Woman Come Down used little more than a bicycle, a ladder, and a hatchet for props. What it did have, however, was a fresh take on two popular fairy tales (similar to what James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim did in 1987's Into The Woods).

In Woman Come DownRed (Kristen Broadbear) is a young woman whose mother (Karen Offereins) has become a sarcastic control freak. Red suspects her handsome, but boring boyfriend, Henry (Leer Relleum), is about to propose to her.

On her way to grandmother's house, Red encounters the lean and hungry Mr. Wolf (Maro Guevara), who is eager to distract her so he can do his job (apparently, there are lots of lonely, elderly women who would like to expire on their own terms, with or without dignity). Mr. Wolf tells Red all about the mysterious woman in a tower who has always fascinated him.

Maro Guevara (Wolf), Kristen Broadbear (Red), Theresa Miller
(Rapunzal), and Leer Relleum (Henry) in Woman Come Down

When Red finally meets Rapunzal (Theresa Miller), she offers the lonely young woman an option she never knew she had: Rapunzal could come down from the tower and take responsibility for her own life. Later, upon arriving at grandmother's house, Red and Rapunzal find Mr. Wolf wearing the old woman's clothing (even a wolf likes to get up in drag). Soon Henry arrives on the scene, axe in hand, boasting that he has purchased a perfect place in the woods where Red can lead a secluded life raising their children.

Red quickly realizes that she doesn't want to lead the same life that her mother and grandmother did and tells the shocked Henry that she doesn't want to marry him, either. As she bids Henry goodbye, Rapunzal and Mr. Wolf start to eye each other with hunger.

The cast of Ladies in Waiting in rehearsal

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Sara Judge, Alison Luterman's new play, Night In Jail, has three characters:
  • Samantha London (Tonya Narvaez) is a tabloid celebrity, a spoiled prima donna whose fame and fortune is largely the result of a sex tape that went viral on the Internet. Having been arrested and charged with drunk driving, she's stunned to discover that she can neither buy, bluff, nor bully her way out of the situation.
  • Henry DuBois (Charles Lewis III) is the officer guarding her prison cell. A recovering alcoholic, he knows every bullshit excuse Samantha will throw his way and is sure he can resist her bullying.
  • The ghost of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Broadbear) has done a little bit of creative time traveling but picked a lousy moment and destination for the end of her journey.
Charles Lewis III, Theresa Miller, and Kirsten Broadbear in Night In Jail

Rest assured that these three characters never expected to end up playing a game of dominoes in a jail cell!

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes and deftly directed by Claire Rice, Oily Replies is set on an oil rig where strange things have been happening.  Three virgins (Karen Offereins, Theresa Miller, Tonya Narvaez) have mysteriously appeared to tempt and taunt the clueless oil workers (Maro Guevara and Aaron Tworek).

Meanwhile, a Noir-style detective named Sergeant Manson (Leer Relleum) has landed on the rig, dressed in a trench coat, ready and eager to grill the crew's supervisor, Skint (John Lennon Harrison), about why people's body parts have been disappearing. A self-proclaimed "Important Man" (Charles Lewis III) arrives to inform the Narrator that he can't be killed off.

It's beginning to look like the villain might be the virgin with dandruff. But then again, maybe not.

The cast of Ladies In Waiting takes a bow

Oily Replies was immensely enhanced by Jim Lively's sound design. And yet, in three plays written about ladies in waiting, I found myself most impressed by the male performers. Maro Guevara was hysterically funny as Mr. Wolf and an oil worker covered from head to toe in grime. Charles Lewis III scored strongly as the prison guard, Henry DuBois, and the "Important Man."

The evening's top honor goes to the ever delightful Nick Dickson, a graduate of the Clown Conservatory who can make an audience dissolve in giggles merely by opening his eyes. Or inhaling. Or sticking his hands in his pockets.

There are times when Dickson looks like an impish Dennis the Menace (or Bill Watterson's mischievous Calvin). At other moments, his theatrical training makes his work onstage seem effortless. He's the kind of actor who never fails to entertain; a performer one never tires of watching

Leer Relleum (Sergeant Manson) and Nick Dickson
(The Narrator) rehearsing Oily Replies

Most of the people involved in Ladies in Waiting are part of Stuart Bousel's extended theatrical family, acquired from his involvement with No Nude Men Productions, San Francisco Theatre Pub, and the San Francisco Olympians Festival.

In 1962 Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Bob Fosse, Cy Feuer, and Sid Caesar teamed up for a musical based on the delicious fake memoir of Belle Poitrine by Patrick Dennis. The final song in Little Me, entitled "Here's To Us," was introduced by Nancy Andrews. Nearly fifty years later, it still resonates as a tribute to all those who collaborate on theatrical ventures large and small.  Although the song was rarely recorded, Judy Garland once performed it on her television show. Here's the clip:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Girls On Top

When Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981, audiences were thrilled by the dancing light towers that were a key element in Robin Wagner's set design (and that were used to brilliant effect by director/choreographer Michael Bennett). The 2010 revival of Dreamgirls (also designed by Wagner) made such spectacular use of Howard Werner/Lightswitch's computerized multimedia effects that the show's original Broadway production looked downright primitive and almost geriatric by comparison.

Some producers like to get their opening night audience in a receptive mood by plying them with free wine. Although the opening night of Bring It On obviously had several cheerleading teams in the auditorium, their excited screams were not what set the tone for the evening. That task was neatly accomplished (and smoothly guaranteed) by two angled digital signboards performing an electronic countdown to the beginning of the show.

With the help of set designer David Korins, lighting designer Jason Lyons, and video designer Jeff Sugg, director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has been able to give this production a fluidity that is rarely seen onstage. With four digital signboards that can travel horizontally, vertically, and rotate around a vertical axis while screening pre-programmed visuals, the creative team for Bring It On has found a way to make the physical production as agile and mobile as their dancers.

It's been a long time since I enjoyed a new musical quite as much as Bring It On, which opened this week at the Orpheum Theatre as part of an extended pre-Broadway tour. With a sassy libretto by Jeff Whitty and a songwriting team that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green, Blankenbuehler has fashioned a spectacle whose exceptionally high levels of energy keep audiences rooting for the dancers and cheerleaders (as opposed to their opposing schools).

Bring It On received its world premiere in January 2011 in Atlanta at the Alliance Theater (which launched Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida and the musical version of The Color Purple).  It has clearly been designed to reflect a teenager's experience strictly from an adolescent perspective. Unlike Wicked, Billy Elliot the Musical, The Tap Dance Kid, Oliver!, Annie, and other "family entertainment" musicals, there isn't a single major character in Bring It On who represents an adult authority figure.

Bridget (Ryann Redmond) gets some advice from Campbell
(Taylor Louderman) in Bring It On (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Not only do the four moving signboards combine with the show's cheerleading stunts to give an extra sense of verticality to the production, each time a major stunt gets set up onstage, its energetic, high-spirited execution resembles the frenzied, frequent ejaculatory releases of male teenagers that can be appreciated by audiences of all ages and genders.

The cheerleading squad from Truman High School in
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

The show begins at the very white Truman High School, whose students include:
Taylor Louderman and Elle McLemore in a scene from
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Campbell's cozy little world would seem ideal for a teenage girl until her hopes and dreams are shattered. Suddenly, and quite bizarrely, the school board enacts a redistricting plan which sends Campbell and Bridget to a school for lower-income kids that doesn't even have a cheerleading squad. It does, however, have a much more diverse student body with an established social pecking order. Among the students at  Jackson High are:
  • Danielle (Adrienne Warren), a sexy young black woman who, in addition to heading up her school's top hip-hop dance crew, has a part-time job at the local mall's Burger Pagoda.
  • Nautica (Ariana Debose), one of Danielle's closest friends and a member of her crew
  • La Cienega (Gregory Haney), a sassy black drag queen who is also a member of Danielle's crew.
  • Randall (Jason Gotay), a sweet and lanky Caucasian who finds a perverse joy in his ability to leave Campbell speechless.
  • Twig (Nicolas Womack), a horny Hispanic rapper and sweet chubby chaser who is attracted to Bridget because she has an extra load of "junk in her trunk."
Nicolas Womack as Twig in Bring It On: The Musical
(Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Much like Glee, Bring It On shows high school students as they are, rather than as they are idealized. The show's clear message is that the key to success lies in building confidence instead of begging for others to accept you. As a result:
  • Bridget (the fat girl who was scorned but tolerated by a crowd of mean and petty cheerleaders at Truman) finds a different level of acceptance at Jackson that does wonders for her self esteem.
  • Twig helps the other male students at Jackson learn that it's all right to be attracted to a hefty woman.
  • Campbell, who has always operated from a position of white privilege, gets numerous lessons in humility (I love the moment when she asks the black drag queen how he could possibly know what it's like to feel as if you'll never fit in with everyone else).
Gregory Haney as La Cienega in Bring It On: The Musical 
(Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

When Jerome Robbins was rehearsing the cast of West Side Story for its 1957 premiere, he insisted that the actors playing the Sharks and the Jets not socialize with members of the opposing gang offstage in order to keep the intensity of their rivalry real onstage. Although the score to Bring It On may sound as if it is through-composed (no song list appears in the program), there were actually two different songwriting teams involved in the production. In the following clip from the Alliance Theater's world premiere production, they discuss the challenges of merging the musical identities of two competing high schools.

There is no doubt in my mind that Bring It On will be a commercial success. After all, this show is about teenagers living their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. The fact that all the characters are teenagers may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the show's producers:
  • There is no need to depend on a celebrity's name recognition to boost box office sales.
  • Just as Cirque du Soleil has developed a new audition channel through which gymnasts, contortionists, and clowns can find professional employment, there will be plenty of cheerleading talent eager to audition for future slots in resident or touring companies of Bring It On.
  • As a result, there will be little need to worry about finding replacements if and when a performer leaves the show.

Some critics have dismissed Bring It On as a piece of shallow fluff that should not be considered as a solid evening of musical theatre. They may not understand what the future holds for this show.

The version of Bring It On that I saw is in much better shape than many other musicals I've seen during their out-of-town tryouts. That list includes Jerry Herman's Dear World and Mack and Mabel, Stephen Schwartz's Wicked and The Baker's Wife, Stephen Sondheim's Follies, Jule Styne's Prettybelle and Lorelei, Kander & Ebb's The Act, George Fischoff's Georgy, Ervin Drake's Her First Roman, and David Bryan's Memphis.

Following the show's San Francisco run, Bring It On is booked through June 3 on a tour that takes the production to Denver, Houston, Fayetteville, Dallas, Des Moines, Chicago, St. Louis, Charlotte, Durham, Providence, and Toronto. Not only does that give the creative team time to do any necessary tightening, it helps the producer's recoup a sizable part of their investment. The long tour will also help to build roots and test the show before audiences in areas where cheerleading is a critical factor in the lives of teenage girls.

Bring It On's story line rests on the kind of empowering female friendships and messages of tolerance that fueled Wicked's popularity and helped the 2003 Stephen Schwartz blockbuster to become the show that teenage girls simply had to see (many have returned to see the show multiple times). But the producers of Bring It On have a clear path to box office gold that most other musicals lack: The force which drives longevity for most Broadway shows is group sales.

Adrienne Warren, Taylor Louderman, and Elle McLemore in
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)
  • By the time Bring It On reaches New York, Wicked will be close to celebrating its tenth anniversary on Broadway. 
  • Each year brings a new wave of cheerleaders to high schools throughout America. 
  • Whether or not they have seen the 2000 film of Bring It On (or any of the other films in the franchise), millions of current and future adolescents have become loyal Gleetards whose parents will be looking for a new Broadway show with which to entertain the family.
  • While Bring It On should have no trouble attracting adult theatre parties or tourists visiting New York, it can easily tap into the well-organized social networks of cheerleading teams, sorority alumni, and former cheerleaders whose daughters are about to wave their first pompoms. (It's interesting to note that the producers are using their standalone website as the gateway to Bring It On's full online marketing presence on Facebook).
  • Each time a high school sports team travels to New York with its cheerleaders, there will probably be a group sales package available for its school to use as a fundraising tool. 
  • Because cheerleading is hardly unique to the United States, foreign productions will prove to be lucrative franchises (just as they have been for shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and Avenue Q). I fully expect there to be productions in London, Tokyo, Australia and Germany.
  • Because much of the scenic and lighting designs for Bring It On can be digitally reproduced for other productions, there is very little physical scenery needed for the show (the staging require any turntables or trapdoors).
The result is a highly marketable, easy-to-replicate phenomenon. Ka-ching!

Danielle (Adrienne Warren) leads the students at Jackson High School
 in a scene from Bring It On: The Musical  (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

I especially enjoyed the performances by Nicolas Womack (Twig), Ryann Redmond (Bridget), Kate Rockwell (Skylar), and Gregory Haney (La Cienega). You will, too.