Sunday, January 13, 2013

He's a Bottom -- You're the Top!

The juxtaposition of people and/or events never fails to invite curious comparisons.  Last week, San Francisco audiences attended opening nights of works by two of the greatest talents in American theatre. Examining their cultural contributions to the 20th century could leave anyone in a state of shock and awe. Comparing their lives, however, is more revealing:
  • Born 20 years apart, one man's grandfather was widely known as "the richest man in Indiana." The other's grandfather was an Episcopal priest.
  • One man's father was a professional druggist; the other's a traveling salesman with a notorious drinking problem.
  • One man wrote his first operetta at the age of 10; the other was forced to do menial labor in order to support his early writing career.
  • Born in small towns, both men spent much of their lives wrestling with their passions for other men. Although one of them was openly -- sometimes defiantly -- gay, the other chose a marriage of convenience.
  • Although one became renowned for his wit, sophistication, and meticulously rhymed list songs, he liked to pick up sailors and pretend that some of his tricks were rough trade (many of his ballads and love songs revealed the depth of his closeted passions).  The other channeled his emotional anguish into creating some of the greatest theatrical roles ever written for women.
  • One was psychologically crippled by substance abuse; the other was physically crippled by an unfortunate accident in which a horse rolled over on top of him.
  • One's catalog of songs contains an astonishing number of popular standards; the other's plays are constantly performed in theaters around the world.
  • While one used his musical and linguistic genius to put poetry in the mouths of singers, the other showed how the tortured life of a poet and dreamer can produce a substantial number of dramas, short stories, essays, and screenplays.
  • Cole Porter died in 1964 at the age of 73; Tennessee Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71.
These two artists were among the great voices in American theatre. In 2011, audiences around the world celebrated the 100th birthday of Tennessee Williams by attending performances of his plays. The brilliance of Cole Porter's lyrics can still be found in songs like "Let's Misbehave," "My Heart Belongs To Daddy," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," and "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking."

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This week, the media has been peppered with stories marking the one-year anniversary of the Costa Concordia disaster. While many people were quick to compare the ship's late-night collision with the sinking of the RMS Titanic, maritime historians are painfully aware of another, somewhat more eerie comparison that deserves mention.

Unlike the sinking of the Titanic (which was not a cruise ship), The Costa Concordia tragedy took place close to land, with the ship's waterlogged hull coming to rest at Isola de Grigio. While many people associate Long Beach Island with the devastation recently caused by Hurricane Sandy, early in the morning of September 8, 1934, the cruise ship S.S. Morro Castle was about eight miles off Long Beach Island when a fire broke out in a storage locker that eventually engulfed the entire ship in flames. The burning hulk eventually drifted ashore near the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

What does the Morro Castle tragedy have to do with Cole Porter? More than most people know. At the time, Porter was working with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse on a new musical. Producer Vinton Freedley's original idea had involved a cruise ship and a bomb plot, followed by a shipwreck that left people stranded on a desert island.

After the Morro Castle disaster resulted in 138 deaths, Freedley turned to his director, Howard Lindsay, and brought in a publicist named Russel Crouse for a speedy rewrite (Lindsay and Crouse developed a reputation as Broadway show doctors and went on to write the scripts for Life With Father, Red, Hot and Blue, Call Me Madam, The Sound of Music, and Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President).

With its new script, Anything Goes had its Broadway premiere at the Alvin Theater on November 21, 1934 (10 weeks after the Morro Castle fire). Ethel Merman turned the title song (as well as "I Get A Kick Out of You," "You're The Top," and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" into popular hits. The 1962 off-Broadway revival starring Eileen Rodgers added "Friendship" from Porter's DuBarry Was A Lady (1939), "It's De-Lovely" and "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" from Red, Hot, and Blue (1936).

The Wikipedia entry for Anything Goes details how songs were reassigned to different characters and/or interpolated from Porter's other musicals in a manner that would make Rossini proud. Timothy Crouse (Russel's son) and John Weidman updated the book for the 1987 Lincoln Center revival (starring Patti LuPone) and added songs from Red, Hot and Blue,

The national tour of the Roundabout Theatre Company's highly-acclaimed 2011 Broadway production roared into the Golden Gate Theatre last week with a cast headed by Rachel York and Erich Bergen (Bergen will also perform his cabaret act on Monday, January 28 at Live at the Razz).

As someone whose apartment includes a room with nearly 300 postcards, photos, and pictures of historic ocean liners covering the walls, I was thrilled to walk into the theatre and feast my eyes on Derek McLane's show curtain, which features a delicious three-stacker (the S. S. American) resembling the legendary Art Deco palace, S.S. Normandie. Coupled with Martin Pakledinaz's snazzy period costumes, McLane's sets keep the production on a constant high note.

Erich Bergen and Rachel York in Anything Goes
Photo  by: Joan Marcus

I tip my hat to Kathleen Marshall, who directed and choreographed this revival with the intention of adding plenty of snap, crackle, and pop to a show that is nearly 80 years old. The result is quite astounding: Not only do Porter's songs retain their freshness and lyrical appeal, the revised book from the 1987 production is a comic delight (those who have grown up in the era of jet travel have no idea how important celebrity spotting was to the transatlantic trade during the early 20th century).

Carmen Miranda posing at sea

Rachel York is a sleek and sultry Reno Sweeney who, in addition to being an enchanting belter, taps up a storm. As Billy Crocker, Erich Bergen scores strongly in a series of ridiculous costume gags while doing a great job as a romantic comedy lead. Others offering sturdy support include Dennis Kelly as Crocker's CEO boss, Elisha Whitney; Fred Applegate as gangster Moonface Martin; and Joyce Chittick as Erma (the gangster moll eager to give any sailor a helping hand).

Fred Applegate and Rachel York in Anything Goes
Photo by: Joan Marcus

Sandra Shipley made the most out of her moments as Evangeline Harcourt, with Alex Finke taking a more lyrical approach to the role of her debutante daughter, Hope Harcourt. Special Kudos to Edward Staudenmayer, whose Lord Evelyn Oakleigh brought down the house with his over-the-top Act II rendition of "The Gypsy In Me" (a song sung by Hope Harcourt in the original Broadway production).

Perhaps the biggest delight of the evening is to sit back and enjoy an energetic, entertaining musical which contains eight numbers that have become standards of the great American song book. If the audience's thunderous approval of Anything Goes is any indication, they just don't make shows like that anymore. Here's Sutton Foster performing the title song with the New York company at the 2011 Tony Awards.

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While Anything Goes is all about madcap adventures and mistaken identitiesSomething Cloudy, Something Clear is filled with the kind of self doubt, sexual frustration, and emotional desperation that lie at the core of so many plays by Tennessee Williams. Written in 1980 (three years before the playwright's death), Something Cloudy, Something Clear looks back on the summer of 1940, when Williams had his first gay love affair while working on a rewrite of Battle of Angels. Like many of his dramatic works, it is filled with unrequited love, foreboding omens, a mysterious disease, and the sexual allure of a devastatingly handsome stranger.

Although Williams claimed to have had some sexual experience during his teens, he suffered a nervous breakdown by the time he had turned 24. Biographer Lyle Leverich notes that the playwright's first sexual affair with another man involved a Canadian dancer named Kip Kiernan (who subsequently left Williams, married a woman, and died four years later at the age of 26). Devastated by the loss, Williams carried Kiernan's picture around in his wallet for many years.

Aaron Wilton (August) and Kayal Khanna (Kip) in
Something Cloudy, Something Clear (Photo by: Gilbert Johnson)

With John Fisher directing, Theatre Rhinoceros recently staged Something Cloudy, Something Clear with mixed results. Aaron Wilton gave a touching performance as August, a playwright about to get his big break who is being bullied by theatrical producers and teased by a potential Hollywood star. With little more than a pot to piss in, August clearly doesn't know how to handle two young homeless people who are desperately in need of financial help and mentoring.

Aaron Wilton (August) and Kayal Khanna (Kip) in
Something Cloudy, Something Clear (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Kip (Kayal Khanna) aspires to be a modern dancer but has been diagnosed with a deadly glioblastoma. His obnoxious yet protective fag hag gal pal, Clare (Gwen Kingston), is a brittle diabetic in a questionable relationship with a Bugsy Siegel-like gangster (with no health insurance, she needs someone to pay for her insulin). Clare is determined to find a sugar daddy who can look after Kip when he returns to New York after summer's end.

Clare (Gwen Kingston) and Kip (Kayal Khanna) are in need of far
more than mere mentoring in Something Cloudy, Something Clear
(Photo by: Gilbert Johnson)

From a structural standpoint, Something Cloudy, Something Clear has numerous clumsy moments as Williams looks back on his pivotal summer of 1940. While the script offers an awkward scene in which two producers try to bully an artist into working for free, there is another set of negotiations which I found far more critical to the drama.

As August and Kip try to articulate the outline of a relationship in which Kip would become August's kept boy, there is no question about August's physical attraction to the younger man's lithe, sinuous body. Nor is there any doubt that, if August's play becomes a hit, he will have enough money to support the young man.

Confused by Kip's skittishness and almost palpable fear, August tries to discover why the young dancer bolts for the safety of the ocean whenever a moment of intimacy seems possible. The answer may seem startling to some, but reveals a painful truth.

Although he understands the need for someone to take care of him financially (as well as someone who would be cool with harboring a draft dodger), Kip is clueless about the mechanics of gay sex. August seems like a nice enough man, but Kip is terrified to think about what August might want from him.

Kayal Khanna as the confused Kip (Photo by:  Kent Taylor)

Whether or not that dramatic revelation justifies the rest of the play is difficult to assess. Kayal Khanna provides plenty of eye candy for the audience while doing his stretching exercises. Gwen Kingston is pushy enough to be annoyingly convincing as Clare. Maryssa Wanlass and Jeffrey Biddle appear in a variety of secondary roles.

In the rare moments when Williams stops fussing around with cryptic hints, selfish gangsters, belligerent theatrical producers and flashback scenes involving his former lover (Frank Merlo), actress Tallulah Bankhead, and others, he gives August some exquisite lines with which to express the poet/playwright's heartfelt sentiments. Those moments glow with the kind of theatrical magic that made Tennessee Williams shine as a playwright.

Even though such moments are few and far between, Aaron Wilton (drawl and all) does a beautiful job with them.

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