Saturday, January 28, 2012

Express Yourself

As soon as a star fades to black, the inevitable question becomes: Where will we find the next Steve Jobs? The next Birgit Nilsson? The next Merce Cunningham? Who among today's young generation will be the next John Lennon? Luciano Pavarotti? Rudolf Nureyev?

For ballet dancers and opera singers there are obvious places to look (dance studios, music conservatories, and apprentice programs for young artists run by regional opera companies). But not every person can afford to follow those paths. Indeed, some people have no idea they might possess any artistic talent until they are challenged by a friend, a teacher, or someone who hints at their potential.

One of the people who got me interested in writing was working as a receptionist for an employment agency in Providence, Rhode Island. Her boss was on the board of directors of a YMCA summer camp that I worked for and, after several discussions, she suggested that I try my hand at writing. Although I had never given any serious thought to the matter, something in the way I spoke made Ann Daly Snell think I could write.

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TheatreWorks is currently offering the West Coast premiere of The Pitmen Painters, a fascinating play by Lee Hall based on a true story that rocked Britain's art world in the first half of the 20th century. In 1934, a group of miners in Ashington, England requested that their Workers’ Educational Association pay for lessons in art history rather than evolution.

After a bumpy start with their new lecturer, Robert Lyon, they began to paint with no absolutely training in technique, perspective, or any background in art. The work produced over the next 40 years by the Ashington Group stunned Britain's art critics, who had always assumed that art was created by members of society’s upper classes, not its working stiffs.

Paul Whitworth appears as art professor Robert Lyon
in The Pitmen Painters (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

As the artistic director of TheatreWorks, Robert Kelley, notes:
"The Pitmen Painters asks many questions about art. What is it? Who's it for? What's it worth? Who has a right to make it? Playwright Lee Hall suggests that art is everywhere, in a claustrophobic mine shaft, at a country race track, in the view from a cottage window. He believes that the potential for art is built into the human spirit and into every moment of our lives as well. If exceptional talent is rare, the author of the dance-drama Billy Elliott believes it, too, can be found anywhere, from a provincial ballet class to the lamplit shafts of coal mine, if only society would allow it room to grow. In Hall's world, the constraints of poverty, class-consciousness, and elitism stand between potential and its fulfillment, and we are all the poorer for it. But in this exquisite play rising from the darkness of the mines, we discover untapped wealth shining bright with a light from within."
Marcia Pizzo, James Carpenter, and Nicholas Pelczar appear in
a scene from The Pitmen Painters (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

I'll confess to having had a problem cutting through the thick accents used by the TheatreWorks ensemble. However, there was no faulting the members of this tightly-knit cast. As George Brown, James Carpenter was a cantankerous old man who was quickly dismissive of Nicholas Pelczar's young lad (who wanted to learn about art even if he wasn't a miner). Patrick Jones shone as Oliver Kilbourn (a young man with obvious artistic talent who was suspicious of those who wanted to put a price on his work).

Others in the cast included Jackson Davis, Dan Hiatt, and Paul Whitworth, with Kathryn Zdan as Susan, the young model more than willing to take her clothes before a group of shocked and sexually repressed men. I especially liked Marcia Pizzo's portrayal of Helen Sutherland, a wealthy woman willing to give Oliver a stipend which would allow him to work as an artist instead of as a coal miner.

The Pitmen Painters raises lots of questions about how one discovers one's own artistic talents and grows to self-identify as an artist. It's interesting to note that the Ashington Group continued to meet once a week for 40 years (their works can be seen on display at the Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives.

Performances of The Pitmen Painters continue through February 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Although Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman was raised in Jersey City, his parents spent their summers working in popular hotels in the Catskills and at the Stissing Lake Camp in the Berkshires. His passion for musical theatre began to develop after his parents took him to see Ethel Merman in a performance of Annie Get Your Gun.

Blessed with the ability to listen to a show's score and memorize much of its music, Herman was often able to return home from a Broadway show, sit down at the piano, and play some of its songs from memory. Although he first enrolled at Parsons The New School of Design (and continues designing apartments and homes to this day), he transferred to the University of Miami which, at the time, was noted for its theatre department.

His songwriting led to four Broadway hits (Milk and HoneyHello, Dolly!Mame, and La Cage aux Folles). Among his less successful works were such tune-filled shows as Dear WorldMack & Mabel, and The Grand Tour.

Popular reviews based on his catalog of songs have included Jerry's Girls and An Evening With Jerry Herman. Angela Lansbury (who starred on Broadway in Mame and Dear World) starred in his television musical, Mrs. Santa Claus. A studio album of his songs for a proposed Las Vegas show entitled Miss Spectacular is available on CD.

Herman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981 and the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1986. The newly-remodeled performance space at his alma mater is named the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. However, few Broadway lyricists can rival Herman's unbridled sense of optimism.

While Herman has had many hit songs from his own shows, in 1964 (at the request of composer Mark Sandrich, Jr.) he contributed two songs to Ben Franklin in Paris during its difficult out-of-town tryout. His lyrics for "To Be Alone With You" (which is sung while Ben Franklin and Madame La Comtesse Diane de Vobrillac are soaring above Paris in a hot air balloon) are, to me, the essence of a Jerry Herman song:
"I'd sail the skies,
Off to the farthest little star, I'd go;
Sail the skies and watch the people disappear below.
I'd gladly give up every earthly thing I know,
To be alone with you,
To be alone with you.

I'd roam the earth and every corner of the seven seas;
I'd let the raging oceans take me where they please,
To be alone with you.

To hold your hand in mine,
With nobody there beside us;
To hold your hand in mine,
There's nothing I wouldn't do.

But if someday,
To have to share you with the world I must,
If someday I find each plan of mine has turned to dust;
Then while you're here,
All that I want in all this world is just
To be alone with you."
Kennedy Center honoree Jerry Herman

Under the artistic leadership of Greg MacKellan, 42nd Street Moon recently embarked on a series of musical salons dedicated to Broadway's great lyricists.  Having already presented programs honoring Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, John Kander, Dorothy Fields, and Ira Gershwin, the company began 2012 with a tribute to Jerry Herman featuring guest stars Jason Graae and Faith Prince (who have known each other since they were students at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music).

Both artists have worked directly with Jerry Herman. Graae (whom the composer chose as the star of  a West Coast revival of The Grand Tour) often likes to joke that "my career peaked in Burbank." But Graae also knows how to "sell" a song and gave a powerhouse rendition of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles.

Prince gave a beautiful delivery of "Where In The World Is My Prince?" (a deliciously comic number from the Miss Spectacular album) and the two old friends joined forces to sing a personalized version of "Bosom Buddies" from Mame.

Jason Graae, Greg MacKellan, and Faith Prince

One would think it would be hard to dampen a tribute to Jerry Herman (whose song catalog provides solid evidence of a prodigious talent and a prolific songwriter). Yet several technical problems undermined the effectiveness of the evening.

Debbie de Coudreaux and Sharon Rietkerk delivered many of Herman's ballads with warmth and tenderness. However, there were obvious problems with the show's lighting and sound.

The male members of the supporting cast were surprisingly ill-prepared and ran into a curious obstacle. Unlike the scores of most Broadway shows from the 1920s through 1950s, Jerry Herman's songs are well known to the 42nd Street Moon audience (some of his biggest hits became popularized on the radio in the 1960s).

When Kelly Sanchez (an extremely likable young performer) found himself center stage trying to riff his way through a jazzed-up version of the title song from Mame while struggling to read the lyrics off a piece of paper, I couldn't help thinking "This audience deserves better."

The good news is that Jason Graae and Faith Prince will be returning to town in two months to appear in "The Prince and the Showboy"  at The Rrazz Room from March 25-27 (click here to order tickets). In the meantime, here's the video from the night Jerry Herman was inducted as a Kennedy Center honoree.

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