Monday, October 7, 2013

Resurrections 'R Us

During the government shutdown, a great deal of attention has been focused on the closure of national parks, popular visitor attractions, and federally-run museums. Although the media tends to focus on highly visible public monuments, my mind goes to places like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and one of its most undersung attractions: the National Museum of American History.

Opened in 1964, this facility was originally known as the Museum of History and Technology. However, over the course of a half century, it has evolved into a museum of American culture. While the building contains such familiar items as Julia Child's kitchen, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland during the filming of 1939's The Wizard of Oz, one of the cars from the original Dumbo the Flying Elephant Ride, and Archie Bunker's chair, it is essentially a massive collection of cultural artifacts.

Numerous small collections of memorabilia dedicated to the preservation of theatrical history are scattered throughout the nation. Although Lincoln Center is the official home of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (which houses a treasure trove of archival materials), its preserved performances appear on videotape and in digitized recordings.

The New York Public Library's Museum for
the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center

How does one keep a literature of musical theatre alive and relevant? One could look to the world's great opera companies, which have often taken on the responsibility of keeping the basic repertoire alive while creating new works and resurrecting long-neglected operas from the public's view. Or one could look to nonprofit arts organizations like the New York City Center's popular Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert program or San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, which offers semi-staged productions of a half dozen old musicals every year.

In 2003, theatre historian and documentary filmmaker Rick McKay released Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, the first part of a trilogy whose other titles are Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age and Broadway: The Next Generation.

Back in the days when America's regional opera scene was thriving, I dreamed of a very different kind of entity: A Museum of the American Musical Theatre which would be devoted to the following:
The main focus of my dream, however, was so financially prohibitive that it could only rest in my imagination. Just as great opera companies are capable of producing at least a dozen different operas over the course of one season, I dreamed of a living museum dedicated to staging works from the American Musical Theatre.
  • This museum would have a musical, dramaturgical, and fundraising staff whose goal was to produce 10 shows a year.
  • As a resident theatre company, it would employ a core group of musicians on yearly union contracts.
  • The company could have an education department which would help strengthen the basic curriculum for students who wanted to earn a degree with a specialty in musical theatre.
  • The company would debut new productions that could eventually tour or play limited engagements in regional cities. 
  • Some of its productions might be digitally preserved, telecast over PBS, or shown in movie theatres (like the Metropolitan Opera's live-streaming broadcasts).
  • Most important, this company would be able to build a loyal and very much alive subscription audience.
It was only a dream, but what a dream! By a curious set of circumstances, I recently attended the San Francisco opening night performances of two revivals of ill-fated Broadway musicals.
  • Each had a troubled original run. 
  • Each was preserved on video. 
  • After extensive revisions, each seems to have found its niche and garnered raves from critics and cheers from new audiences.
Will wonders never cease!

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I was lucky enough to see the original 1966 production of It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman not once, but twice. There were lots of reasons people looked forward to this musical.
Superman (Lucas Coleman) holds Lois Lane (Jen Brooks) in his arms
in It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman (Photo by: David Allen)

Alas, It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman only ran for 129 performances at the Alvin Theatre. In 1975, a condensed version was made for television (you can watch it in its entirety in the following clip).

In 2010, the Dallas Theater Center presented a revised version of the show starring Matt Cavenaugh doubling as Clark Kent and Superman. This month, Dyan McBride directed a rollicking new production of the show for 42nd Street Moon.

By adding a woman's touch to a traditionally testosterone-driven action hero story, the ever-inventive McBride has created a whole new source of laughs for the show. In the original Broadway production, the villain was a mad scientist played by Michael O'Sullivan in a style that became more creepy than comical. His henchmen were a group of Chinese martial artists (the Flying Lings) who were led by the evil Father Ling. But back in the 1960s, the women's movement was just starting to gain momentum and Chinese men with Fu Manchu moustaches were seen as the most sinister and exotic kind of villains.

Fast forward 45 years and Abner Sedgwick has been transformed into Agnes Sedgwick (who is convinced that one of the reasons she's never gotten the Nobel Prize is because she's a woman). Imagine Darlene Popovic in a Phyllis Diller fright wig channeling a demented version of Elaine Stritch and you've got one very mad scientist!

Publisher Max Mencken (Brent Schindele) and Dr. Agnes Sedgwick
(Darlene Popovic) conspire to destroy Superman in
It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman (Photo by: David Allen)

Change Father Ling and the Flying Lings to Mama Grimaldi and a group of Italian acrobats called The Amazing Grimaldis and the only critical line that gets ditched is Lois Lane's "Help, I'm being held prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory!" Plus, Mama Grimaldi starts to look like a very desperate housewife.

Clark Kent (Lucas Coleman) is a tempting target for his co-worker,
Sydney (Safiya Fredericks), in It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman
(Photo by: David Allen)

The biggest coup, however, was casting Lucas Coleman as Clark Kent and concentrating on Clark's awkwardness rather than Superman's muscular physique. Coleman is a phenomenal physical comedian, taking pratfalls and using his tall body's lean elasticity with the kind of grace one associates with great clowns like Stan Laurel and Dick Van Dyke. Whether rushing to a telephone booth or leaping into the wings, he brought a great sense of comic book panache to the production.

Even with reduced orchestrations, Strouse's score still charms, especially with such numbers as "The Woman For the Man," "You've Got Possibilities," "The Strongest Man in he World," and "You've Got What I Need." Staci Arriaga's choreography, Alvin Shiu's set design, and Felicia Lilienthal's mod costumes added to the fun.

Publisher Max Mencken (Brent Schindele) and Dr. Agnes Sedgwick
(Darlene Popovic) conspire to destroy Superman in
It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman (Photo by: David Allen)

I especially liked Brent Schindele as the Daily Planet's greedy publisher, Max Mencken; Safiya Fredericks as his secretary, Sydney; and Jen Brooks as Lois Lane. Performances of It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman continue at the Eureka Theatre through October 20 (click here to order tickets). Be there or be square.

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While It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman may have only chalked up 129 performances on Broadway, it did a whole lot better than Carrie, the legendary disaster that instantly became known as one of Broadway's most expensive flops. Based on Stephen King's 1974 novel about a teenage girl who is brutally bullied at school (but discovers how to use her telekinetic powers for revenge), the show's pre-Broadway tryout opened on February 13, 1988 for a four-week run at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

With choreography by Debbie Allen -- and Barbara Cook singing the role of Carrie's hyperreligious mother -- the production had major technical problems (a near-fatal incident with a piece of stage machinery on opening night caused Cook to withdraw from the project following the Stratford run). Although the number of people who actually saw Carrie on Broadway (where Barbara Cook was replaced by Betty Buckley) is quite small, archival footage from the Royal Shakespeare Company now allows YouTube viewers to watch the original Stratford production and hear the effect of Cook's voice on the role of Margaret White.

Alas, Carrie did not fare well on Broadway, where it opened at the Virginia Theatre on May 12, 1988 and quickly closed after a total of 16 previews, five performances, and a loss of nearly $8 million. The show's legend, however, like Stephen King's Christine, simply would not die.

Following revisions by its original composers (Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford), and extensive script revisions by Lawrence D. Cohen, seven songs were replaced and the revised Carrie was successfully produced off-Broadway by the MCC Theatre with a cast headed by Molly Ranson as Carrie and Marin Mazzie as her demented mother.  In September 2012, Ghostlight Records released the first cast recording of Carrie.

A cruel prank played on Carrie (Cristina Ann Oeschger) sets
a tragic pattern of events into motion (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre has just debuted a stunning production of Carrie at the Victoria Theatre which received the kind of screaming opening night reception from an ecstatic and electrified audience that actors and producers can only dream about. Directed by Jason Hoover and choreographed by Amanda Folena, the production makes brilliant use of Kelly James Tighe's unit set and Joe D'Emilio's crafty lighting with projections designed by Erik Scanlon).

As with most productions by this tiny nonprofit arts organization, the exceptional musical preparation by Ben Prince is on a par with any major arts organization. The astonishing sound design by Anton Hedman puts the frequent distortion one hears at touring productions booked into the Orpheum Theatre to shame.

Cristina Ann Oeschger as Carrie White (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

Ray of Light Theatre has found a major talent in Cristina Ann Oeschger, whose energetic performance as Carrie bubbles over with seething resentment, naive hope, a willful determination to chart her own course in life, and literally "carries" the show. Heather Orth (who did an exceptional job as Mama Rose in Broadway By the Bay's 2011 production of Gypsy) delivers a solidly-crafted, emotionally complex, and beautifully sung portrayal of Carrie's delusional mother (who was raped after her high school prom and subsequently turned to Jesus).

Carrie (Cristina Ann Oeschger) confronts her mother (Heather Orth)
in a scene from Carrie (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

The supporting cast doesn't have a weak link in it. Nikita Burshteyn has strong physical and vocal appeal as Tommy Ross (the football stud with a secret passion for poetry). Courtney Merrell is sincere without being cloying as the concerned girlfriend who convinces Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. Jessica Coker scores points as the girls' gym teacher who attempts to take Carrie under her wing while Riley Krull does an outstanding job as the conniving Chris Hargensen.

Tommy Ross (Nikita Burshteyn) comforts his girlfriend, Sue Snell
(Courtney Merrell) in a scene from Carrie (Photo by: Erik Scanlon)

It's an extremely rare pleasure to experience a show that was originally pronounced dead on arrival, but has been lovingly exhumed and reworked by its creators. Thanks to Ray of Light Theatre's outstanding production, there can be no question that the revised Carrie is a tautly-constructed, fast-moving show that quickly catches the audience in its dramatic grip and never lets go. With an energetic young cast, some cool technical surprises, and an amazing sense of dramatic momentum, it makes a show like Legally Blonde seem downright pathetic.

Performances of Carrie (a legendary Broadway flop turned cult musical) continue at the Victoria Theatre through November 2 (click here to order tickets). This new version should have a long life in regional and community theatres (as well as becoming a favorite choice for high school performing arts programs).

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