Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Gone With The Wit

I recently fell in love with an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien that appeared in The New York Times. When I say that We Are What We Quote "graced" the editorial section, I mean to pay tribute to the elegance of its craft, the depth of its insight, and the incisive breadth with which it explains how quotes form the reference markers that dot each and every one of our cultural landscapes.

With The Young and the Restless now in its 40th season, how does one capture the painful distance between the witty and the witless that has come to dominate our celebrity-driven culture? Let me turn to a delicious quote from 1975's Chicago and urge you to read it aloud.  Behold Fred Ebb's lyric for "Class."
"Whatever happened to fair dealing
And pure ethics and nice manners?
Why is it everyone now is a pain in the ass?
Whatever happened to class?

Whatever happened to 'Please, may I?'
And 'Yes, thank you' and 'How charming'?
Now every son of a bitch is a snake in the grass.
Whatever happened to class?

Oh, there ain't no gentlemen to open up the doors,
There ain't no ladies now, there's only pigs and whores
And even kids'll knock you down so's they can pass.
Nobody's got no class.

Whatever happened to old values
And fine morals and good breeding?
Now no one even says 'Oops' when they're passing their gas!
Whatever happened to class?

Oh, there ain't no gentlemen that's fit for any use,
And any girl will touch your privates for a deuce
And even kids'll kick your shins and give you sass.
Nobody's got no class!

All you read about today is rape and theft.
Jesus Christ, ain't there no decency left?
Nobody's got no class!

Every guy is a snot. Every girl is a twat.
Holy shit, what a shame. What became of class?"
Poster art for Chicago
* * * * * * * * *
Since its 1991 off-Broadway premiere at the Blue Angel, Pageant The Musical has joined 1972's Sugar, 1983's La Cage aux Folles, and 2002's Hairspray among the list of drag-friendly musicals. With book and lyrics by Bill Russell (Side Show, Lucky Duck) and Frank Kelly -- and music by Albert Evans (The Texas Chainsaw Musical) -- the show's original production was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Robert Longbottom.

Pageant is a show primarily for gay men who adore the wretched excesses of beauty competitions.like the Miss Venezuela contest (as opposed to the grisly tabloid exploitation of the 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty contestant JonBenét Ramsey). Spoofing the show's producer (Glamouresse Beauty Products), Pageant features ridiculous advertising plugs for such questionable beauty aids as "Lip Snack" (a tasty cosmetic treat that comes in 27 shades and flavors) and "Smooth-as-Marble Facial Spackle" for the woman whose face resembles the rugged terrain of a dermatological nightmare.

Frankie Cavalier (Manuel Caneri) with the cast of Pageant
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Musical numbers include such titles as "Natural Born Females," "Something Extra," "It's Gotta Be Venus," and "Girl Power." Of course, these ensemble numbers can't hold a candle to the solo performance by Miss Bible Belt (a/k/a Miss Ruth Anne Ruth) of "Banking on Jesus;" Miss Karma Quinn's interpretive dance ("The Seven Ages of Me"), or the excruciatingly campy dramatic reading of "I Am The Land" by Miss Great Plains (a/k/a Bonnie Louise Cutlett).

Add in the hysterical tongue-rolling presence of Miss Industrial Northeast (a/k/a Consuela Manuela Raffela Lopez), the bear-like Miss Deep South (played with gusto by Jonathan Deline), the gun-totin' Miss Texas (merrily portrayed by Tim Holmsley), and Manuel Caneri's slick and slimy characterization of a Bert Parks-style emcee and the groundwork is laid for some serious silliness.

Tim Holmsley as Miss Texas in Pageant
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Directed and produced by Robb Huddleston (the new Director of Operations for the Stern Grove Festival), the cast for this local production included Manuel Caneri as Frankie Cavalier, Aaron Brewer as Miss Bible Belt, and Tim Holmsley as Miss Texas. The hulking Jon Deline (who dragged me onstage last fall at the San Francisco Fringe Festival) was a butchly coy Miss Deep South while Eddie "Cookie Dough" Bell trolled for laughs as both Miss Industrial Northeast and the reigning Miss Glamouresse. Maurice Andre San-Chez appeared as Karma Quinn (Miss West Coast) with James "Daft-Nee Gesuntheit!" Roderick winning the competition's sash and tiara as Miss Great Plains.

Emcee Frank Cavalier (Manuel Caneri) with the reigning
Miss Glamouresse (Eddie "Cookie Dough" Bell)
in Pageant (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Due to scheduling conflicts, I attended the first preview of Pageant which, although enthusiastically greeted by an audience of friends and beauty pageant fans, often stumbled around the stage. If, as the performance wore on, Pageant began to wear thin, that may have been due to limited rehearsal time, the overall quality of stage direction, or the show's general ditziness.

* * * * * * * * *
Quite a different level of theatre writing was on display as pianist Michael Feinstein spent an evening at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco plugging his new book, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs. An endearing raconteur and assured performer, Feinstein took great care to highlight the contrast between composer George Gershwin (an extroverted polymath narcissist who could easily toss off new tunes with the assurance that further inspiration would come later) and his older brother, Ira (a painfully shy introvert whose struggles as a lyricist were dogged by the unforgiving pressures of a relentless perfectionism.

The gang of talent that hung around the Gershwins was smart, sassy, and brimming with creativity. As Feinstein relates, one day Ira Gershwin came home from a doctor's visit with a diagnosis of arrhythmia. Without missing a beat, Mel Brooks crooned "Who could ask for anything more?

Once, during dinner, Ira Gershwin dropped a side dish of vegetables that got all over his clothing. When Feinstein tried to assure him that it was no big deal, the famed lyricist looked up and asked "Do you know how terrible it is for a composer to drop a beet?"

While it's not the exact same presentation that Feinstein gave at the JCC-SF you can enjoy one of his talks about the Gershwin brothers in the following hour-long video clip.

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