Monday, January 23, 2012

Once More With Feeling

I once had a roommate who hadn't the slightest interest in the performing arts. "What do you mean when you keep saying 'That works'?" he asked. "I don't understand what your friends mean when they say something's "got legs.'"

Let me give you an example. George Gershwin was sitting in his publisher's office one day when Buddy DeSylva walked in and said "Let's write a hit!" The result, a song called "Do It Again," was added to the score of 1922's The French Doll at the insistence of its star, Irène Bordoni. Since then, it has become an American classic.

"Do It Again" has got legs.

During a 1952 appearance at Camp Pendleton, Marilyn Monroe's suggestive rendition of "Do It Again" nearly caused a riot. The following footage, taken from the star's 1954 USO tour to South Korea, shows Monroe singing several songs from the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes before it ends with a snippet of her singing "Do It Again" to a crowd of sex-starved servicemen.

In 1961, the song was part of Judy Garland's legendary concert which was recorded as Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall. The popular singer performed "Do It Again" during one of the "Born in a Trunk" sequences in her short-lived television show two and a half years later.

In June of 2006, Rufus Wainwright performed two concerts at Carnegie Hall in which he sang all of the songs that had been recorded on the Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall album. In addition to releasing a double album entitled Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, a DVD was issued entitled Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live From the London Palladium. here he is singing "Do It Again" in the same key used by Judy Garland.

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Those three words -- "Do it again" -- have a profound significance for Lorenzo Pisoni who, after growing up in a circus troupe went on to an adult performing career ranging from a multitude of Shakespearean roles to the Ringmaster in a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. Few actors, when asked during an audition "What else can you do?" can honestly answer "I can tap dance dressed as a gorilla."

Pisoni made his professional debut at the age of two and quickly started memorizing cues and routines from the circus show in which his father, Larry Pisoni (Lorenzo Pickle), co-starred with Bill Irwin (Willy the Clown) and Geoff Hoyle (Mr. Sniff). As Larry taught his son the tricks of clowning (how to stumble, fall down stairs, juggle, do a double take, tumble, etc.) he would keep telling Lorenzo to "Do it again" until the young boy had worked the routine into his body and learned to own it.

Lorenzo Pisoni at two years of age

The seriousness with which the elder Pisoni mentored his son helped to build a solid appreciation for craft and precision as well as the history and tradition of clowning from the early days of the commedia dell'arte to the present. As he continued to tour with the Pickle Family Circus, the younger Pisoni had a very different experience from military brats who are constantly being relocated from one base to another. As he explains:
"I don't know many kids who not only have a first-hand knowledge of what their parents do on a day-to-day basis, but also get to see their parents enjoying what they do -- see any adults enjoying what they do. Everyone in the Pickle Family Circus was having a good time."
The adult Lorenzo Pisoni stands beside a picture of himself at
two years of age in Humor Abuse (Photo by: Chris Bennion)

Pisoni recently returned to San Francisco, where he is now appearing in his one-man show at the American Conservatory Theater following a successful run at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Originally planned as a history of clowning that would be presented with his childhood friend from the PFC, Jonah HoyleHumor Abuse underwent major revisions when Hoyle developed stage fright and, after living in Alaska for several years, joined the faculty of De Anza College to teach creative writing.

Pisoni turned for help to Erica Schmidt, an old friend from his Vassar College days who was able to point out how, unlike children who run away to the circus, Lorenzo ran away from the circus. Schmidt also convinced Pisoni that, with Jonah out of the show, the narrative could be reshaped into a father-son story that would have a much broader appeal. Since 2008, Pisoni and Schmidt have been staging Humor Abuse in increasingly larger venues, before audiences ranging from 99 to 1,000 people.

When he first appears onstage, Pisoni stresses that he is not a clown. He's someone who grew up playing straight man to a clown (his father). However, as the evening progresses, Pisoni deftly demonstrates one trick after another while explaining what it was like to grow up in a circus environment surrounded by talented people who were always there to offer emotional support.

Pisoni's show is enhanced with slides that show him, at various stages of childhood, performing with his father as well as with a dummy his own size. As he performs his father's famous "sandbag" routine without flinching, Humor Abuse moves into a rare territory that combines an adult's poignant recollections of his childhood with meticulously-planned moments of stagecraft.

Throughout the evening, Pisoni's charisma, physical dexterity, and intelligence seduce the audience into learning about the tradition of clowning. In between his numerous backflips and pratfalls,  the audience gains a deeper awareness of why a good clown can not only make people laugh, but make them choke back tears as well.  Humor Abuse continues at the American Conservatory Theatre through February 5 (click here to order tickets).

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I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the San Jose Repertory Theatre's newest project, a co-production with the ACT -- A Contemporary Theatre in SeattleDavid Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright have created a new adaptation of a popular crime novel (1943's Double Indemnity) by James M. Cain which became a classic example of film noir.

Cain's novel first appeared in serial form in a popular magazine. The 1944 film version of Double Indemnity had a screenplay written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, it was produced by the aforementioned Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom.

Although Kate Smith begged the public not to go see the film because of its amorality, Cain didn't mince words in suggesting that "this fat girl.... probably put a million dollars on its gross." Alfred Hitchcock wrote to the film's director saying that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder.'"

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Double Indemnity received none. The public, however, embraced the film and it has been consistently hailed as a great American movie by the American Film Institute. For their stage adaptation, Frechette and Wright went back to Cain's original novel.  As director Kurt Beattie explains:
"Noir, for me, is a fantastic journey into a morally featureless universe.  In the moral definition of the world, good people and bad people, moral absolutes are hugely blurred in noir. Noir generates a tremendous amount of fear, pleasurable fear, about being waylaid in the dark, about being destroyed by people who supposedly care about you. Noir has a brilliant way of bringing forward and amplifying those emotional forces, those anxieties that people struggle with daily. I see noir fundamentally as melodrama, but with one great difference. You have all the devices of melodrama: mood heightened by music, cliffhanger situations, and suspense. If we're able to do it right, it will be both an entertaining and, dare I say it, philosophical journey for the audience."  
Carrie Paff and John Bogar in Double Indemnity
Photo by: Chris Bennion

Unfortunately, this adaptation of Double Indemnity suffered the same fate as last year's musicalization of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City by American Conservatory Theatre. A story that worked brilliantly in print (both were originally published in serial format) as well as on film felt remarkably uncomfortable in its attempt to make a successful transition to the stage.

Much of this has to do with the style of writing and direction. The sexual innuendo which works so well in print and onscreen feels clumsy and labored onstage. The characterization of Nettle, an office secretary played by Jessica Martin, seemed almost cartoonish.

Despite Thomas Lynch's fluid set (which made frequent use of its turntable) and Annie Smart's stylish period costumes, Double Indemnity never really achieved liftoff. Casting was strong, with John Bogar as a very masculine Walter Huff, Carrie Paff as a sultry, scheming Phyllis Nirlinger, and Jessica Martin as Phyllis's stepdaughter, Lola.

Carrie Paff and John Bogar in Double Indemnity
Photo by: Chris Bennion

With two strong actors playing the leads, I was surprised to see the ever-versatile Mark Anderson Phillips steal the show as Jackson (the man who almost ruins the murder coverup), Norton (the head of the insurance company), and Nino (Lola's smarmy boyfriend who starts shacking up with her stepmother). Other than economy, I'm not sure what was gained by having Richard Ziman double as the victim (Mr. Nirlinger) and the detective who solves the murder (Barton Keyes).

For a genre in which music should play a key role in building suspense, Adam Stern's score was surprisingly innocuous. Coupled with the fact that too many laps around a turntable can weaken a production, San Jose Rep's world premiere never really seemed to find its mark.

I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of an operatic adaptation of one of Cain's other great works (1934's The Postman Always Rings Twice) at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June of 1982. With a great score by Stephen Paulus and a tight libretto by Colin Graham (who also directed), the work received several productions from regional opera companies.

The following footage (taken from rehearsals for a student production of The Postman Always Rings Twice at Boston University) gives a sense of the composer's skill at providing the right sound for Cain's novel. As it nears its 30th birthday, Paulus's opera deserves a revival.

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