Friday, November 29, 2013

Romantic Conspiracies

It's an old, old story that's been played out on stages since the early days of the commedia dell'arte. No matter where one travels, certain stock characters are easily recognizable:
  • The young lovers.
  • The old fool.
  • The gatekeeper (father, guardian) who wants to marry off his daughter or ward to the highest bidder.
  • Assorted aiders and abettors.
This fall, the San Francisco Opera presented new productions of two of the operatic art form's greatest works. Each is a rollicking comedy in which young love triumphs over extremely vain and selfish elders who claim to have the ingenue's best interest at heart.

What struck me was not merely how delightful each comedy was -- or how magnificently each work was performed. What amazed me was how, when approached with love, respect, and dramatic integrity, each production proved that great works of art can hold their own from one century to another.
How's that for longevity!

* * * * * * * * *
One reason Rossini's classic has been a staple of the basic repertoire for so many years is because it is performed with a smaller orchestra than many other operas and does not require a full operatic chorus. Unlike popular works by Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, Donizetti, Gounod, or even Bizet's Carmen, it is an extremely cost effective opera to produce that does extremely well at the box office. It also makes audiences happy.

As a result, some productions of Barber of Seville seem to last forever. When a major opera company finally decides to create a new production of this work, its old version is easily sold or rented out to other opera companies. For the accountants on a nonprofit's board of directors, a good production of Barber has the word amortization written all over it.

The San Francisco Opera's beautiful new Barber of Seville (a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera) boasts a sharply angled set of surprising versatility that has been designed by Llorenc Corbella. Its varying levels offer performers multiple playing areas which can be reached (depending on one's physical agility) by climbing or jumping between a flat surface representing the street and the steeply raked platform which holds Dr. Bartolo's house.

Rosina (Isabel Leonard) with Count Almaviva (Javier Camarena)
in The Barber of Seville(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Pepa Ojanguren's costume designs are far less specific to the play's original period and an ensemble of Spanish dancers (choreographed by Nuria Castejón) offers frequent reminders of the opera's true locale. As director Emilio Sagi explains:
"I conceived the opera as a fragile jigsaw puzzle in that each scene is presented like a sketch, forming a series of mosaics united by that frenetic poetic rhythm of the music, which pulses along the entire length of the opera. The triumph of love gives way to a progressive emergence of colors in fabrics and flowers right up to the grand finale. The happy lovers go off in a luxurious modern coach in the manner of a fairy-tale carriage, symbolizing the fragility of the liberty that is dreamt of and the actual fragility of love.

Although the period of the drama is not reflected in an explicit manner, all the scenography refers to the 18th century, when the antiquated ideas of the ancien régime gave way to the Enlightenment, planting the seed of the revolution of the middle class. This moment of instability led me to conceive of the work as an ingenious 'organized madness' in that everything is moving, nothing is sure (including the scenery, which forms and transforms constantly in front of the audience). In that sense I wanted to differentiate clearly the world of the people anchored in the past and that of those who are trying to find their own liberty, like Rosina, who introduces notes of color into the action with her rebelliousness. The vitality, the bustle, and the spontaneity of the Andalusian 'street people' with their dance-songs and their body language inspired by Flamenco, are evoked throughout the entire opera."

My first experience with The Barber of Seville took place during the 1962-1963 season at the Old Met. It was a student matinee (I think Helen Vanni sang Rosina). For a high school student, the most memorable part of the afternoon was watching all the paper planes that sailed through the auditorium's Golden Horseshoe.

A shot of the audience gathered for the closing gala
of the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City

Production styles back then were often weighed down by tradition. Happily, Sagi has brought a wealth of comic invention and deft stage tricks to San Francisco Opera's new Barber production, which should continue to delight audiences for the next two decades. Although double cast in order to allow for a run of 11 performances, the newness of this production (aided by Giuseppe Finzi's solid work on the podium) brought new levels of joy to my experience with Rossini's beloved opera buffa.

Dr. Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli) with Figaro (Lucas Meacham)
in The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Lucas Meacham was a solid and athletic Figaro who found a whip smart accomplice in Isabel Leonard's feisty Rosina. Alessandro Corbelli's Doctor Bartolo and Catherine Cook's Bertha were comic delights. If I felt some disappointment in Andrea Silvestrelli's portrayal of Don Basilio it was, no doubt, because I'm used to encountering a much more oily portrayal of this buffoon (whose character bears an odd resemblance to former Senator Joe Lieberman).

One of the strongest assets in this production was tenor Javier Camarena's portrayal of the Count Almaviva. His rendition of the Count's Act II aria, 'Ah, il più lieto...' was a triumphant display of coloratura technique and musical shading. It also offered a stark reminder of how often Rossini cannibalized his own music from previous scores. Thanks to YouTube, one can now easily compare Almaviva's 'Ah, il più lieto...' (1816) with Angelina's Act II aria ("Nacqui all'affanno … Non piu mesta") from La Cenerentola (which premiered in Rome 11 months following Barber on January 25, 1817).

* * * * * * * * *
Whereas Rossini's Barber of Seville is a frequent visitor to opera stages around the world, Verdi's last opera makes fewer appearances and is often better savored by the cognoscenti. Some people get scared off by the connection to Shakespeare, others are less familiar with the work because, unlike so many of Verdi's other operas, it lacks recognizable (and hummable) tunes Stephen Sondheim made a terse observation about this phenomenon in the "Opening Doors" number from 1981's Merrily We Roll Along.

"That's great. That's swell.
The other stuff as well.
It isn't every day
I hear a score this strong
But fellas, if I may,
There's only one thing wrong:

There's not a tune you can hum.
There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum --
Give me a melody!

Why can't you throw 'em a crumb?
What's wrong with letting 'em tap their toes a bit?
I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit --
Give me some melody!"

There can be no denying that structurally and musically, Falstaff (with its libretto by Arrigo Boito) is a comic masterpiece. As part of the international celebration of Verdi's 200th birthday, the San Francisco Opera enchanted audiences with a new production of Falstaff borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago that was directed by Olivier Tambosi and designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann.

Bryn Terfel as Sir John Falstaff (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Its rich color scheme helps to set this production of Falstaff apart from many others. But Verdi's last opera depends on a phenomenal amount of deftly executed ensemble work while giving a handful of comprimario artists moments to shine. Whether one delighted in the buffoonery of Bardolfo (Greg Fedderly), Pistola (Andrea Silvestrelli), and Dr. Caius (Joel Sorensen) or took delight from the lyrical joy of young lovers Fenton (Francesco Demuro) and Nannetta (Heidi Stober), Nicola Luisotti's conducting kept the action moving at a delicious pace with an occasional assist from fight director Dave Maier.

A great deal of the fun in Falstaff involves egotistical fools being deftly manipulated and humiliated by the women in their lives. The merry wives of Windsor -- Alice Ford (Ainhoa Arteta), Meg Page (Renée Rapier), and Dame Quickly (Meredith Arwady)  -- cunningly sliced and diced the fatuous fantasies of Ford (Fabio Capitanucci) and Falstaff (Bryn Terfel) as they thwarted a father's plan to marry his daughter to a rich fool and an old goat's hopes of scoring with the ladies. Arwady mined her rich, deep contralto for extra laughs with each "Reverenza."

Nannetta (Heidi Stober), Alice Ford (Ainhoa Arteta), Meg Page
(Renee Rapier), and Dame Quickly (Meredith Arwady) conspire
to humiliate Sir John Falstaff (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Bryn Terfel's bloated Sir John was a lecherous old man firmly focused on keeping his monstrous stomach and libido well fed. Whether daintily strutting about like a garish peacock or trembling in fear in front of Herne's Oak at midnight, his performance proved to be an utter delight. The production's last scene in Windsor Park was more magical than most, with Verdi's final fugue ("Tutti gabbati!") sending the audience home in a state of operatic bliss.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Woman Is A Sometime Thing

Because it includes a multitude of art forms, artists who create new works of musical theatre face a unique set of challenges:
  • Can they find a topic which will appeal to modern audiences?
  • Can they achieve a balance between words and music that will effectively tell their story?
  • After workshopping a new piece of musical theatre and trying to fine tune it, can they whittle the piece down to just the right length that will keep an audience involved and entertained?
  • Once a show has found its 'legs," can they let go of their "baby" long enough for it to find an audience of its own?
All of this is much easier said than done. Bay area audiences were recently treated to the world premieres of two new works of musical theatre which were warmly greeted by audiences.  Although both pieces focus on a woman trying to cope with an excessive amount of emotional baggage, one is almost minimalist in nature while the other is a more complex, musically robust, and troubled piece of work.

What struck me about these two musicals was how well, despite any perceived weaknesses, each show resonated with its audience. That's such an elusive quality for a new show to display and yet it was undeniable in performance. Trying to identify what gave each show its uniquely personal aura is like asking a star chef for the secret ingredient to one of his special dishes.

* * * * * * * * *
Certain one-act operas (composed for a single soprano voice) show up every now on a double bill. Usually, they are staged as a dramatic vehicle for a singer with a unique combination of dramatic skills, voice, and personality. These include 1924's Erwartung, composed by Arnold Schoenberg.

Another popular work is 1958's La Voix Humaine, composed by Francis Poulenc and seen below with Renata Scotto starring in a 1996 production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Whether conceived as character studies or diva vehicles for an artist with a unique voice, what marks each of these works is an orchestral score that is occasionally capable of overwhelming its solo singer. What is it like to experience a tautly-written English-language chamber opera whose minimalist score allows a character's soul to shine through? A piece of relevant music theatre that can engage a contemporary audience without suffocating them orchestrally?

The answer can be found in a new chamber opera composed by Polly Pen with book and lyrics by Victor Lodato. Arlington recently received its world premiere from the Magic Theatre and will make its New York debut in February of 2014 at the Vineyard Theatre. It is a delightful gem which deserves to find a long life with music conservatories and regional opera companies that need a 60-minute one-act opera to fill out a double bill.

Sensitively directed by Jackson Gay, Arlington focuses on Sara Jane (Analisa Learning), a pregnant young Army wife who comes from a family with a long and proud history of military service. While her husband, Jerry, has spent the past three months stationed in the Middle East, Sara Jane has tried to put on a happy face to cover the anguish, loneliness, and emotional insecurity that plague her whenever her spirit sags. Her tools include her family's piano (given to her by her caustic mother who regarded it "like a gravestone, a memorial to my lack of ambition"), some freshly-cut daisies, and a bottle of Jerry's favorite bourbon.

Analisa Learning as Sara Jane in Arlington
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Sara Jane and Jerry have always considered themselves to be boring, ordinary people. Although Sara Jane can come off as a bit of a ditz (someone who loves chocolate and chard but is embarrassed by the selfie her husband sent her of his erect penis), she often resembles a former cheerleader who is entering the School of Hard Knocks. With Jerry stationed overseas, Sara Jane has been having some pretty intense nightmares (including one in which she was chewing on a leaf). But, as she tells herself, "I can totally see myself as a caterpillar. I'm practically a vegetarian as it is..."

Unfortunately, Jerry's recent texts from the Middle East have darkened in tone, indicating that the military cause he's supposed to be defending might be far more sinister than he imagined. As Sara Jane tries to keep her faith in his mission she must cope with the intimidating figure of her mother (who has just had another round of plastic surgery and must now sip her white wine through a straw). As Victor Lodato explains:
"The character hovers about naturalism. The whole world of the piece does and, with music, the emotional journey just crystallized. Sara Jane has really found her voice here. The music is her very soul -- her pulse, neuroses, joy, and the quicksilver nature of her mind.  It's all there in the music. The music, the piano, the melodies are one with the character.  It's very intimate."
Arlington begins with the sound of heavy rain and a remarkably droll musical prelude. Working on a unit set designed by Erik Flatmo, Analisa Learning is accompanied by Jeff Pew on piano (who occasionally takes on the characters of the men in Sara Jane's life) while indicating, through his body language, whether or not he agrees with her thoughts.

Jeff Pew at the piano in the world premiere of Arlington
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The role of Sara Jane provides a great opportunity for a talented young soprano with solid acting skills. As Polly Pen explains:
"As I was composing it, I knew I didn't want this to be some rarefied, artsy kind of thing. I wanted it to be like this is a woman who is making it up on the spot. Somebody who's two different people in a weird way, who's maybe part animal, who's fighting, and the other is doing something beautiful.  The pleasure/pain principle is what I think makes theatre glow. And that's what I'm always looking for here. One person wants this world to be glowing, and the other is in pain. If Sara Jane feels like holding a note a really long time, she'll do it. Sometimes she's talking, sometimes she's singing, and she's not even sure which it is after a while. There are also times when I think we forget that sometimes you don't need to say things. You have to BE her to compose this. If we ever did learn some things on this project it was that music can sometimes emotionally take you further in places where you don't have to say something."
Analisa Learning as Sara Jane in Arlington
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

I was thoroughly smitten with Arlington, as concise a six-scene chamber opera as one could ever hope to encounter. Beautifully performed by Analisa Learning and Jeff Pew, this new musical travels an increasingly sobering dramatic arc as its protagonist starts to reach deeper levels of personal and political awareness. Pew's score provides an airy foundation for the weightier issues troubling a frightened, lonely Army wife as she slowly comes to grips with the military's definition of "collateral damage" and her mother's dispassionate description of civilian victims of the American war in the Middle East as "vermin who should be exterminated."

* * * * * * * * *
For years, Margo Hall has been demonstrating her versatility onstage for Bay area audiences. One of the most consistently satisfying performers in the area, her legion of fans has continued to grow from season to season. While Sara Jane's growing awareness that life is not a bowl of cherries is in its psychological infancy, Hall's autobiographical musical, BeBop Baby, comes fully loaded with enough messy and unresolved emotional baggage to sink the Titanic (again).

Margo Hall (Photo by: Ulla Havenga)

Most people are unaware of Hall's childhood in Detroit, where she grew up in the shadow of the music industry. Her stepfather, Teddy Harris, Jr., was an influential music director, composer, educator, pianist, saxophone player, and arranger for Motown. A childhood friend of Berry Gordy, Jr., Harris helmed the New Breed Be Bop Society Orchestra, and worked with such legends as The Supremes, Paul Butterfield and Aretha Franklin. Because her Detroit home was frequently visited by boxers, gangsters, musicians, and extended family, she grew up under the loving musical guidance of her stepfather (her relationship with her biological father was less than joyful).

Written by Hall (in collaboration with Nakissa Etemad) with a musical score composed by Marcus Shelby, BeBop Baby debuted at ZSpace with the robust sound of a jazz orchestra while acknowledging the influences of soul music and girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas.

BeBop Baby collaborators Marcus Shelby and Margo Hall
(Photo by: Chris Alongi)

Directed by Sheila Balter, BeBop Baby bounces back and forth between musical numbers and dramatic vignettes as Hall searches for some lost sheet music in the basement of the home her mother shared with Teddy. There are sporadic interruptions in which she confronts her estranged biological father (played by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), who moved into the house following the deaths of Hall's mother and stepfather. Along the way there are pictures of Hall as a young girl, stories about the night she subbed for one of The Supremes, and her fond memories of Teddy, what he taught her about acting, music, and the life of a professional artist, and the impact he had on Detroit's youth.

With Halili Knox and Dawn L. Troupe providing musical backup, BeBop Baby's structure is almost as jumbled as the mix of emotions coursing through Hall's mind as she tries to prepare for a musical tribute to her late stepfather while coping with the unexpected presence of her biological father (who suddenly wants to become a part of her life again).

Ulla Havenga's poster art for BeBop Baby

The smooth tones of Shelby's ensemble take the audience on a simulated tour of music from the 1950s-1970s with a style I have always admired. Hall's singing and dancing may strike some as a bit awkward until one remembers that what they are seeing are her memories of the period through the eyes of a little girl who grew up and developed into an multifaceted artist of remarkable depth with a wealth of life experience.

What I love about this show is that it offers a new and deeply personal story of a youngster growing up surrounded by the music makers of her day combined with the rich sounds of a jazz orchestra. BeBop Baby still needs a lot of tweaking, but there is no denying that the audience took to it with a great deal of warmth and appreciation. Here's a clip from the show's 2012 workshop production.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Memorable One-Night Stands

In rare moments of nostalgia, I miss the good old days of gay bathhouses. The sheer randomness of who you might meet, grope, kiss, or fuck was a never-ending game of chance. Wandering through a dimly-lit maze, a hand might reach out, a towel drop alluringly, or a tongue salaciously invite you to embark on a dark debut into deliriously decadent delights.

For better or worse, the  baths offered gay men a safe environment in which to go shopping for sexual partners. Some nights were total losses; on other evenings one could end up in a hedonistic bangaramathon whose sexual energy waxed and waned as people moved in and out of a pulsing, homoerotic cluster of male flesh. Sometimes an orgasm was met with admiring applause followed by the sweetest kind of conversation; at other times the man with whom you had just been so intimate vanished into the darkness.

Whether you saw him in the showers a while later or he ended up serving you brunch the following weekend, gay bathhouses offered a unique kind of meat and greet. I'll never forget bumping into Zohn Artman in the Press Room at the San Francisco Opera a year or two prior to his death. "I know you from somewhere, but I just can't place where that could be..." Zohn sighed as he tried to make small talk. My reply took him by surprise: "I was sitting beside you at the 21st Street Baths last night as you gave someone a very loud and vociferous blowjob!"

Back in the days of "Fuck him first, get his name and number later," many gay men went to bathhouses with the secret hope that a sexual encounter might lead to something more. Change a few pronouns in the following songs and their lyrics describe that glimmer of hope felt by so many men as they paid for a key to a locker (or private room), were handed a towel, and buzzed inside to enter a gay garden of earthly delights.

Staged readings of new plays pretty much work the same way. While each holds the lure of literary promise, what you get is little more than a dramatic crap shoot. One may encounter a short, fleeting playlet of comic brilliance, a mini-drama of rare poignancy, or a clumsily-written work that lands with a thud and seems incapable of finding an ending.

Two Bay area nonprofits are dedicated to encouraging playwrights to create new work. Because each depends largely on social media for publicity and box office sales, the audience at any playwright's reading is bound to include a healthy sampling of supportive friends, family, and coworkers.
  • One organization offers a carefully defined incubator program which guides aspiring playwrights through the creative process of creating short plays. 
  • The other offers participation in an annual festival in which plays of varying lengths are given semi-staged readings in front of a live audience, thereby offering playwrights an invaluable opportunity to hear what their work sounds like when spoken by voices other than the ones in their heads.
* * * * * * * * *
Playground (the dramatic incubator) recently took advantage of special circumstances to offer up a night of brief musical delights entitled The Gershwin Plays. The challenge was to create a short play that had been inspired by a song written by George and Ira Gershwin. As a prelude to the evening, soprano Sharon Rietkerk performed an excerpt from Diane Sampson's work in progress entitled The Tale of the Sleeping Cutie.

The plays chosen to be performed that night covered a wide range of ideas:
  • Written by Patricia Cotter and directed by Doyle OttSomeone To Watch Over Me featured Michael Asberry as a probation officer and Lyndsy Kail as one of his more irresponsible clients.
  • Written by Josh Senyak and directed by Virginia Reed, Just For The Length of A Sigh took audiences back to the golden days of Molly Goldberg. To my delight, the script included a Yiddish word ("upstairssica") that I hadn't heard in at least 40 years!
  • Written by Tom Swift and directed by Nancy Carlin, The Man I Love offered a poignant look at two World War II recruits about to ship out to the war zone who suddenly realize that they are much more attracted to each other than they are to the girls with whom they should be dancing.
Playwright Tom Swift with Playground's co-founder Jim Kleinmann
  • Written by Tanya Grove and directed by Jim Kleinmann, Love Doctor, Heal Thyself featured an advice columnist (modeled after Beatrice Fairfax) who gets a taste of her own medicine.
  • Written by Madeleine Butler and directed by Becca Wolff, A Beautiful Evening hilariously demonstrated what can go wrong when a slightly tipsy society matron is asked to stop eating all the olives at a cocktail party and then entrusted with facilitating a delicate social introduction that comes pre-loaded with unreasonable expectations.
  • Written by Maury Zeff and directed by Gabriel GrilliLove Spacewalked In was clearly an audience favorite (you can read more about it by clicking here).
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Over at the EXIT Theatre, this year's SFOlympians Festival featured a wealth of local talent (92 actors, 30 writers, 25 artists and 12 directors). New works by two of the Festival's regular playwrights were of particular interest to me.

Playwright Kirk Shimano

Kirk Shimano (a regular participant in both Playground and the SFOlympians Festival) decided to turn The Judgment of Paris upside down and inside out by moving the action to a seedy gay bar. Directed by Katja Rivera, Shimano's Paris benefitted as much from the cast's shameless mugging before a rowdy audience as it did from the playwright's hilarious script. According to the notes on the SFOlympians website:
"Paris was a prince of Troy and fought in the Trojan War, but he is perhaps most famous for his role in starting the conflict. When Zeus hosted a banquet on Mount Olympus for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, he invited all of the deities save one: Eris, goddess of strife and discord. Incensed at this snub, Eris crashed the banquet and presented a golden apple bearing the inscription “For the fairest” to its guests. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite immediately claimed this prize and refused to share it. Zeus delegated the job of choosing the recipient of the apple to Paris. After much conniving, Aphrodite offered Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world if she was chosen the winner. Paris chose Aphrodite, which led to Aphrodite revealing Helen of Sparta, which inspired Paris to abduct Helen from King Menelaus (the act that set the Trojan War into motion)."
Celeste Shulte's artwork for Kirk Shimano's Paris

Shimano's reworking of Greek mythology transformed Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite into three tacky drag queens. Although Jeremy Cole's haughty characterization of Margo Harrington caused one audience member to crow about his success at impersonating Angela Lansbury, Cole's drag snobbery offered a highly refined contrast to the bloated, garishly dressed John Lennon Harrison's portrayal of Martha Val Martha, and Perry Aliado's overly precious take on Columbia Vanderbilt Yale (who craved an intention to one of Margo Harrington's A-Gay parties).

The fun began with the arrival of an obnoxiously straight and bitter Erissa (Molly Benson), who pushed herself into becoming the emcee for the beauty contest and promptly set the drag queens up to compete against each other in a series of vicious party games. With Mackenszie Drae portraying Paris as a studly (albeit dimwitted) college jock and Alaric Toy's insecure Hermes transformed into the lovesick gay wingman (who has a hopeless crush on his handsome friend), The Judgment of Paris quickly turned into a gay catfight with Michelle Talgarow forcefully barking out Shimano's stage directions. With no room for subtlety, a brazen good time was had by all.

* * * * * * * * *
This year's SFOlympians Festival closed with the first (and perhaps only) reading of a script that its founder, Stuart Bousel, has been laboring on for at least eight years. Bousel's lifelong fascination with Greek mythology led him to tackle Homer's Iliad by creating a narrated stage version of the story that would be too complex (and require too many actors) to ever get produced commercially. Unless, of course, he had a festival of his own in which his play could be read before a live audience.

Poster art for this year's SFOlympians Festival

To outline the challenges he faced, Bousel explained that:
"The Trojan Horse is the first “Final Solution” in Western military history. In the tenth year of the Trojan War, the commander of the Argive army, Agamemnon, tasks his smartest man, Odysseus, with coming up with a way inside Troy’s impenetrable walls. Odysseus envisions the Horse, though in some versions he is inspired by Poseidon, and in others by Athena. The Horse is constructed from the broken ships of the Argive army and bits of driftwood. It is large enough that as many as two dozen men (depending on the poet) are sequestered inside, fully armed, so that when the Trojans take the horse into their walls, these same men are able to slip out in the night and open the gates of the city, leaving it vulnerable to the hidden army waiting outside. Famously, the prophet Laocoon and the princess Cassandra both denounce the Horse as a trick, but neither is listened to and the Trojans claim what they believe is a peace offering from their rivals, thus prompting the famous saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The Trojan Horse itself has lived on in popular vernacular in a variety of ways, usually implying something that is two-faced or treacherous in nature, a terrible thing disguised as a beautiful one, or that which has, inside of it, something entirely unexpected."
Emily C. Martin's artwork for The Horse or See Also All

Bousel's solution to the epic task he created for himself?
"Fascinated with the Horse and the War in general, I sought to write a comprehensive stage version of the War, tracing it from its roots through to the fall of Troy.  I will be condensing where necessary, but also illuminating specific moments that touch on the specific theme of the duality and treasure/trick aspect of the War, from the Horse to Helen to the Gods themselves, as well as the broader themes of violence, disillusionment, love, objectification, honor, legacy, history and western literature and philosophy as a whole. Rather than trying to reduce the scope of the epic to fit into the modern American theater sensibility of small cast and small space, I seek to celebrate the erratic and almost incomprehensible nature of the war and create the largest, most extravagant play of my career with a sprawling adaptation that includes elements of my favorite versions, associated legends, and additions of my own. Stylistically, the play will combine intimate moments and traditional scenes smashed up against narrative choruses, direct address monologues, battle vistas and various experimental theater ideas and genre/tone departures such as game shows and reality television. Will it succeed? Will it fail? Probably."
Playwright Stuart Bousel with the cast of The Horse or See Also All

Bousel hit on a winning solution by assigning each actor to an archetype (which could be used to represent both Greek and Trojan characters). His dedicated cast consisted of:
Part of the cast for the world premiere of The Horse or See Also All
(Photo by: Charles Lewis III)
The cast for the world premiere of The Horse or See Also All pays
tribute to playwright Stuart Bousel (Photo by: Charles Lewis III)

With the playwright seated stage right, reading his stage directions, the large cast (which had only had a week to prepare for this reading while many of them appeared in other plays during the SFOlympians Festival) did a splendid job of bringing Bousel's script to life. Considering the running time of nearly two and a half hours, special credit goes to director Ariel Craft who quickly laid down a musical pace for Act I's tremendous amount of exposition (which brought to mind Meredith Willson's famous "Rock Island" number from The Music Man).

Although the second act sagged a bit, that was partially due to an increasingly warm theatre, the large number of disillusioned Trojans and Greeks meeting their deaths, and the various twists and turns which led to a surprisingly moral game show finale. I was particularly impressed by the performances of Nikolas Strubbe, Matt Gunnison, Mackenszie Drae, and Dan Kurtz.

Director Ariel Craft relaxes after the world premiere of
The Horse or See Also All (Photo by: Charles Lewis III)

Overall, I would rate this evening an artistic triumph which brought a fitting close to the 2013 SFOlympians Festival. While Bousel is the first to admit that his play doesn't have a chance in hell of receiving a commercial production, I'd venture a guess that it could find surprisingly sustainable life on the college circuit. With a script requiring a cast of 16 actors, it's a perfect joint project for a university's theatre and English departments.

Some adventurous high school drama clubs (where English classes are studying Homer's Iliad) might also want to sink their teeth into a script which can be staged with minimal costumes and scenery.  The Horse or See Also All transforms one of literature's most famous epic poems into a highly relevant and accessible exploration of the costs and foibles of endless war.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Trapped in Limbo

Not everyone gets to go on a "jolly holiday."  Some people never even get to a experience a "season to be jolly." Their souls crushed by circumstance, their backs broken by bureaucracy, their lives shattered by forces beyond their control, they can barely manage to get from one day to the next.

Whether these people are trapped in a cycle of poverty, battling a physical disability, ravaged by a terminal disease or cursed with a mental illness, the depths of their depression and despair -- as well as the looming spectre of their death -- provide plenty of fodder for the fertile imaginations of writers. Misery may love company but, for many a creative type, someone else's misery may provide the basis for a novel, movie script, or stage play

Bottom line? There's gold in them thar pills!

Two Bay area premieres showcased the struggles of unlucky souls trapped in radically different cultures on opposite sides of the planet. While neither production could be described as an uplifting evening of theatre, each shone a light on the struggles of simple people made  to cope with the hand they'd been dealt by unseen forces.

* * * * * * * * *
Take any family that has had its share of hurt and sorrow, line them up along the footlights and ask them to explain a simple fact and you might quickly find yourself in the middle of a heated argument. The opening scene of Mona Mansour's play, Urge For Going, begins with a Palestinian family bickering over issues of identity.
  • Do they define themselves by the parameters of their original homeland or by the constraints of the refugee camp in South Lebanon where they currently reside?
  • Should they be forced to accept the political world's definitions of their homeland (from which more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced when the State of Israel was created in 1948)?
  • What about the impact of 1967's Six-Day War, after which another 300,000 Palestinians were relocated to Lebanon and Jordan?
  • Can the children of Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps still claim to be Palestinian? Don't get this family started......
Ghassan (Munaf Alsafi), Hamzi (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and
Abir (Tara Blau) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Evren Odcikin, the Golden Thread Productions' staging of Mansour's one-act play brings audiences into the home of a family torn apart by politics, defeat, and depression. It's 2003 and the family is dealing with multiple crises.
  • Adham (Terry Lamb) is a former scholar who was unprepared for his brief moment of glory at a conference in London. After he and his wife returned home following the Six-Day War, he sank into a depression which often leaves him barely communicative. 
  • Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) is Adham's son, once a bright young man with a talent for math and science who suffered brain damage when he left home one day to run an errand and was severely beaten by Israeli soldiers. Like the rest of his family, Jul loves to watch reruns of Baywatch.
  • Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio) is Adham's 17-year-old daughter, a bright young woman with a thirst for knowledge who needs her father to fill out a form from school and show his passport as proof of residency in order for her to take the college entrance exam that could change her future. If Jamila passes the exam, she hopes to leave Lebanon and transfer to a school in Damascus.
  • Abir (Tara Blau) is Adham's dutiful wife, who must keep peace in their home while trying to find a future for their children.
Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) and his sister Jamila (Camila
Betancourt Ascencio) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

Add in the presence of Jamila's two uncles -- the overbearing, highly argumentative Hamzi (Julian Lopez-Morillas) who is Adham's brother, and Ghassan (Munaf Alsafi), Abir's brother -- and there are more than enough wounded egos for a playwright to work with. According to Mansour, Urge For Going (which premiered at The Public Theatre in New York in 2011) is a fairly autobiographical drama:
"I wrote this play for American audiences, most definitely, but I want it to reach Arab and Arab-American audiences. I don’t think stories about the Middle East are being told enough. They surely aren’t being told truthfully. One of the challenges in this kind of a piece is: How much do you need to help out an American audience? I've found that sometimes you have to add exposition you wouldn’t normally want to (but without which an American audience would be lost).

I grew up in the same house as my brother and sister but I know they don’t identify themselves as Arab-American or Lebanese-American. I absolutely do. That part of my cultural background, my childhood and beyond, has completely influenced how I view things personally and politically (if we even want to make those distinctions). It started off with my wanting to explore my father’s homeland, Lebanon. From there, I began to find out more and more about the situations for Palestinians there. I was struck with how Chekhovian, in a way, their existence is. They’re in this eternal waiting game in temporary camps set up over 60 years ago (in some cases just miles from what is now the Israel-Lebanon border), waiting to go home."
Adham (Terry Lamb) and his daughter, Jamila (Camila Betancourt
Ascencio) in Urge For Going (Photo by: David Allen)

While Urge For Going's ensemble works extremely hard (I was particularly impressed with the performances of Wiley Naman Strasser and Tara Blau), the play depicts a family stuck in a situation of hopelessness and helplessness, where Adham's emotional and intellectual paralysis threatens to cripple his daughter's future. Just as audiences wonder if Chekhov's Three Sisters will ever make it to Moscow, Mansour's audiences should be careful not to assume that Jamila will be able to extricate herself from a haunted family that lives like ghosts.

* * * * * * * * *
Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting the Bay area premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's play, A Bright New Boise. Set in the break room of a Hobby Lobby crafts store in Boise, Idaho, the script reflects some of Hunter's experiences as a teenager. As the playwright explains:
"I grew up in northern Idaho and attended a fundamentalist Christian high school while working at a local Walmart, so I guess the two experiences have always been sort of conflated for me. There's also just something really interesting about the idea of a break room -- it's like this awkward meeting place for a bunch of people who ostensibly have nothing in common other than their place of work. Fundamentalism occupies such a large part of the American consciousness, but very little of our art.  I like to explore what it's like to live with these beliefs in a constantly modernizing world. It's all about the tension between the two major themes in the play: banality and divinity."
Leroy (Patrick Russell) tries to rattle Will (Robert Parsons)
in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

Hunter's play begins with Will (Robert Parsons) standing in the rain, arms outstretched to Heaven, screaming "Now! Now! Now! Now!" in the hope that he has found his way to the parking lot just in time for the Rapture. Having left an Evangelical congregation near Couer d'Alene following the scandalous death of a teenage boy, Will has relocated to Boise, where he is trying to get a job at the same crafts store where his estranged son (who was given up for adoption at birth) is employed.

Although Will insists on keeping a low profile during his job interview (and after he has been hired), he has an ulterior motive. He desperately wants to get to know his son, Alex (Daniel Petzold), before the Rapture carries him up to Heaven. If ever there was a need for a shining demonstration of how a Christian fundamentalist can be as shallow and creepy as a child molester, Hunter's play rises to the challenge.

Alex (Daniel Petzold) listens to his biological father, Will
(Robert Parsons) in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

It's easy enough for Will to insinuate himself into his son's workplace. The store's manager, Pauline (a slimmed-down Gwen Loeb) may curse like a truck driver but is the sole person responsible for turning around a failing store whose bottom line seemed beyond hope to the folks in corporate headquarters. Her star employee, Leroy (Patrick Russell), may be an arrogant young motherfucker, but he's the only employee in her store who knows anything about art. As Alex's stepbrother, Leroy is also the one person who can calm his brother whenever Alex suffers one of his frequent panic attacks.

Then there is Anna (Megan Trout), the only other female employee. A painfully insecure young woman stuck in a miserable living situation, Anna often sneaks into the store's break room after work because it offers her a safe place to read. Short on social skills, she tries to be nice to Will (who sneaks into the break room after hours so he can work on his blog). But when Will's hyper-religiosity bursts forth, even Anna (who is in awe of writers) has the basic survival skills to flee the room in order to escape from the sinister stench and fantastical fury of Will's Christian proselytizing.

Anna (Megan Trout) tries to read in the store's break room
in A Bright New Boise (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Tom Ross, A Bright New Boise is a well-crafted play about some truly twisted people whose futures hold little capacity for joy. The key phrase, spoken at different points in the evening by Will and his estranged son ("I think I might be a bad person") is a clear warning that all is not well in The Gem State. While Hunter's script shows the pathetic lack of introspection among some religious fundamentalists, it also demonstrates how many of the nonbelievers around them have become convinced that their lives are already a living hell.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

By The Light of the Feminist Moon

In 1968, Virginia Slims cigarettes introduced a new marketing slogan ("You've come a long way, baby!") in its effort to increase its appeal to female smokers. In truth, much of the world has come a long way from the crude Freudian symbolism which insists that anything long and straight represents a male and anything resembling a circle represents a female. When the Women's Liberation Movement began to gain momentum in the 1960s, it generated a wealth of literature that would previously have been unimaginable.

When AECOM Technology Corporation (the architectural firm designing Qatar's 45,000-seat Al Wakrah Stadium -- a $120 billion project planned to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup) unveiled a concept video, it was met with stunning derision from self-appointed critics on the Internet. Originally designed by Zaha Hadid to represent the traditional dhow which Qataris use when pearl diving, the architectural renderings were instead mocked as looking a whole lot more like a vulva. In a recent (unrelated) interview, comedian Sarah Silverman stated "I think vaginas really, really scare a lot of people."

If the thought of a powerful woman unnerves insecure men, the thought of a female goddess, wizard, or magician is enough to make their dicks shrivel up and disappear. From Druid Priestesses like Bellini's Norma to Greek goddesses like Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis and Hera; from Gilbert and Sullivan's lustful Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe to modern Democratic icons like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren, more and more extremely intelligent and articulate women are dealing from positions of power.

In her 2010 screen adaptation of Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, director Julie Taymor changed the character of Prospero from a male to a female (Prospera).

Taymor is not the only female director to think of changing Prospero's gender. In Cirque du Soleil's new show, Amaluna, Diane Paulus has taken a similar approach. The difference is that whereas Taymor is a creative force with strong artistic visions, Paulus is not. Whereas Taymor can create a thrilling opening number for the stage version of The Lion King ("Circle of Life"), Paulus's attempt to build a show around the theme of "women" barely managed to reach for "Circle of Wife."

This became most apparent in the stage play between Amaluna's clowns (Jeeves and Deeda), which easily ranks as the least entertaining and "unfunniest" act I think I've ever seen in a Cirque show. Indeed, after building a whole number around the breeding and hatching of little chicks, the most inspired part of this act came during the curtain call when a member of the cast dragged this "family" behind him.

A great deal of Amaluna's strength comes from the nearly 130 costumes designed by Mérédith Caron. I was much less impressed with the musical score by Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (aka Bob & Bill), which was performed by an all-women band.

Because much of Paulus's work on this show involves creating transitions between the more acrobatically inclined Cirque acts -- and seeing how well she can use Cirque's formidable stagecraft to showcase these acts  -- one often gets the feeling that her contribution to Amaluna falls into the category of stage direction often described as the work of a traffic cop.

Anyone who has staged a production of AidaTurandot, or Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg knows that being called an effective traffic cop is not necessarily an insult. When large numbers of people have to move on and off stage without hurting themselves, the precision of one's stage direction can be of paramount importance. What's particularly interesting about Amaluna's concept is the heavy emphasis on circles and curves in Scott Pask's designs for Amaluna's scenery and props.
  • The six chandeliers spread over the audience (which each has a span of over 14 feet) are made of aluminum tubes that have been bent and positioned to create the effect of a mobile.
  • The remote scenic elements (which often resemble a phosphorescent sea of reeds made with curved glow sticks) help to soften the environment, making it possible to imagine that one is in either a tropical forest or an underwater jungle of kelp and brightly colored coral.
  • The stage floor contains a rotating turntable which allows a layered circular effect during some of the acrobatic acts that involve poles. During these moments, sections of the stage revolve in order to ensure that everyone in the audience can see each act from every angle (even though they are in plain view of the audience, the set's automated mechanical elements have been designed to be nearly invisible).
  • The Water-bowl which becomes a centerpiece for key contortionist/balancing acts (as well as a "womb with a view" love scene) stands  5’5” tall, is 7’3” in diameter, and weighs 5,500 lbs when filled with water.
  • The most fascinating scenic element is the 6,000-pound, 25-foot diameter Carousel (a custom-made ring containing downward- facing lighting clusters as well as anchor points for flying acrobatic performers). Not only does this unit allow multiple aerial performers to fly out over the heads of the audience, it can revolve in sync with the stage (or counter-rotate in the opposite direction) to give the artists and the lighting designer maximum flexibility and range of vertical and horizontal motion. The Carousel's central acrobatic winch can lift up to 1,000 pounds at 10 feet per second; the production's accompanying 8,600- pound grid includes three acrobatic winches which are each able to lift loads up to 400 pounds at 10 feet per second.

What surprised me was that, in a production meant to showcase female empowerment, so much of Paulus's attempt to draw inspiration from The Tempest seemed to be lost on the audience. There was very little sense that Prospera and her daughter, Miranda, were onstage for any reason other than to mark time between circus acts. Nor did one get any sense that the Valkyries performing on aerial straps had anything to do with Miranda and Romeo.

Although Lara Jacobs Rigolo (whose frond balancing act has gone viral on YouTube) was an obvious hit, the two solo performers who scored most strongly with the audience were Evgeny Kurkin who, as Romeo, took some amazing head-first dives as part of a Chinese pole act, and Viktor Kee who nearly walked off with the entire show. Throughout the performance, Kee stalked the stage and audience as a lizard-like Caliban figure with a reptilian tail. When he finally got to perform his juggling act atop the Water Bowl it brought the kind of electricity to the evening that had been missing from a great deal of Amaluna.

Part of Kee's success was that he was allowed to make the kind of emotional connection to the audience that had been denied to most of the other acrobats (who had either been forced into staged attitudes or been kept in motion by the show's revolving stage).  Here's Kee's stunning act:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It's Not Just About The Goat

When my business partner and I launched Alert & Oriented Medical Transcription Services more than two decades ago, one of our early clients was a San Francisco plastic surgeon with a unique specialty. He had a steady supply of healthy, young women who were referred to him for an East Asian blepharoplasty.

Julie Chen's recent admission that she had undergone plastic surgery to correct what was often diagnosed as "Asian eye syndrome" has opened up a huge cultural can of worms regarding employment discrimination and self esteem.

When the American Repertory Theater's production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical launched its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco this week, I knew that my reaction to the production was coming from a distinctly minority perspective. The opening night audience gave the cast a standing ovation (loudly booing the villains and cheering the lovers) while I felt as if I had just witnessed the rape of an American classic.

Since "rape" is such a loaded word in today's vernacular and the creative team for this production is led by three women (director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and composer Diedre Murray), let me rephrase that. I felt like I was visiting a beloved relative of limited means who, for years, had wanted to get a facelift so she could look younger and feel more attractive. Although she had recently undergone plastic surgery, the procedure had obviously been done by a hack. The botched results were undeniable.

One of the basic rules of the medical field is "First, do no harm." While the denizens of Catfish Row kept praying to Jesus from the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre, none of their prayers could undo the artistic damage wrought by Paulus and her creative team. At one point during the second act, I even found myself thinking of Joseph Welch's famous June 9, 1954 challenge to Senator Joseph McCarthy:  "You've done enough. At long last, have you no sense of decency?"

When this production (conspicuously named The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical to distinguish it from the 1935 original) was entering the rehearsal stage in Boston, a huge controversy arose over the artistic decisions to eliminate Porgy's goat and make Porgy a more visually acceptable cripple with a physical deformity that would at least allow him to walk. Stephen Sondheim wrote a scathing letter defending the right of an author to have his work respected by those who might attempt to bend it to their own artistic vision. While Sondheim's remarks sparked a shitstorm of gossip, trust me on this: There's so much more to lament in this execrable production than the loss of a goat.

My first encounter with Porgy and Bess was the 1961 revival that Jean Dalrymple produced at the New York City Center. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to see George Gershwin's masterpiece on multiple stages and with multiple casts. In its full operatic version (undiluted to fit Broadway tastes), the power and breadth of Gershwin's score is overwhelming. One becomes increasingly aware that the chorus -- and Gershwin's choral writing -- dominate major parts of the evening. The storm scene at the end of Act II is a mammoth piece of composition which makes me wonder how anyone could have possibly doubted that Gershwin had created a full-scale opera. Musical cameos sung by the Strawberry Woman, Peter the Honey Man, and the crab seller are like palate cleansers between the more dramatic confrontations involving Porgy, Bess, Crown, and Mariah. As the Strawberry Woman sings, "It's so fresh and fine."

Shortly after I began my opera column for San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter, I reviewed the Houston Grand Opera's touring production of what was then touted as the "opera house version" of Porgy and Bess. In that review I noted that:
"Tuesday, June 21, 1978, was a very special night for American opera.  For the first time in its history, George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was performed complete in a major American opera house. The gold fringes of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House's curtain hanging over Catfish Row was a sight that brought tears of joy to many in the audience. Up until then, Porgy had been cut, butchered, and scaled down to Broadway houses and audiences. In that version it had even been mounted at some German opera houses, but never in the United States, where it was written.  Last year, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a stunning production the way Gershwin wrote the opera,and it has since been playing to capacity audiences in New York, Boston, Cleveland, and other cities. Only when it reached San Francisco did it finally end up where it belongs: on the stage of an opera house in  Gershwin's native country."
For those who have never experienced a traditional version of Porgy and Bess onstage, seen the Metropolitan Opera's telecast, the 1959 movie (starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Brock Peters, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, and Sammy Davis, Jr.) or the DVD of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera's 1993 production (starring Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, and Gregg Baker), the Paulus production may well be their first experience with Porgy and Bess -- in which case one could easily assume that ignorance is bliss. However, when one examines some of the truly boneheaded artistic decisions that went into this production, one can only regret how much new audiences are missing.

Sergei Soudeikine's set for the original production of Porgy & Bess

Catfish Row is a courtyard community which functions as a social microcosm. By contrast, Riccardo Hernandez's scenery for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical looks more like a series of flats purchased from a bus-and-truck touring production of Carmen. There is no sense of physical community any more than a group of people who happen to keep bumping into each other on the street. In a program note written for the American Repertory Theater's production in Boston, Suzan-Lori Parks stated:
"In DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and the Gershwins’ original, there’s a lot of love and a lot of effort made to understand the people of Catfish Row. In turn, I’ve got love and respect for their work, but in some ways I feel it falls short in the creation of fully realized characters. Now, one could see their depiction of African-American culture as racist, or one could see it as I see it: as a problem of dramaturgy."
Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley star in
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical
 (Photo by: Jeremy Daniel)

If Parks is so worried about dramaturgy, she has a mighty strange way of showing it:
  • Porgy's paraplegia has always left him dependent on a goat that could take him around the neighborhood in a cart. The role is usually performed with the actor playing Porgy on his knees for the entire evening. Not only does his diminished stature stereotype Porgy as a weakling, it disguises the strength he has built up in his arms over a lifetime of dragging his body across the ground. This is of key importance in Crown's murder, where (in most productions) Porgy reaches through a window to choke the villain to death. By having Maria hand Porgy a kitchen knife to stick in his new leg brace (presumably so that the audience can witness a knife fight between a cripple and a bully), this production utterly sabotages the irony of someone like Bess becoming dependent on Porgy.
  • Why in the world would Parks cut Porgy's poignant question: "What if there was no Crown -- what if there was only Porgy?" Not only is this the opera's dramatic lead-in to Bess's plea for protection ("I Loves You Porgy"), it gives Porgy the motivation to kill his rival.
  • Late in the opera, when Bess finally succumbs to the lure of Sportin' Life's "happy dust," Paulus sets up the scene as a confrontation between Maria and Bess over who should take care of Clara's baby. Bess pretty much crawls into Porgy's room (to take a nap?) and that's the last we see of her. In most productions, Bess re-emerges from Porgy's room in her red dress (high as a kite and ripped to the tits) and is seen leaving with Sportin' Life as the orchestra triumphantly vamps the music for "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York."
Alicia Hall Moran is Bess and Kingsley Leggs is Sportin' Life
in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical
 (Photo by: Michael J. Lutch)

As the old saying goes, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" So let's talk about the music. One of the basic tenets of the opera world is to always try to respect the composer's intentions. If you can't do that -- and what you're trying to accomplish does not improve upon the original -- at least have the humility to leave it the fuck alone.

Over the past 75 years, Gershwin's score has received plenty of abuse in order to shorten it, reduce the number of musicians in the pit, and eliminate the need for extra chorus people in the cast. However, Diedre Murray's hatchet job goes beyond embarrassment, occasionally eliminating what should be a lush string section and replacing it with something that sounds as pathetic as a concertina.

Some of Murray's efforts to stomp out lyricism (or some of Gershwin's signature touches) border on the perverse. Her toying with the vocal line in  "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" is totally gratuitous. Her elimination of key musical phrases from Gershwin's score has the unintended effect of demonstrating just how much smaller a talent she is (by all rights, some of the blame for the diminished orchestrations must go to William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke).

David Hughey (Jake) and Sumayya Ali (Clara) in the national cast
of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (Photo by: Michael J. Lutch)

With all that being said, I have nothing but praise for the cast of the national tour, which gave their all on opening night in San Francisco. Kudos to Sumayya Ali (Clara), David Hughey (Jake), Danielle Lee Greaves (Mariah), Kingsley Leggs (Sportin' Life), Denisha Ballew (Serena), and James Earl Jones II (Robbins). Extra credit for going the distance in this production is owed to Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy), Alvin Crawford (Crown), and Alicia Hall Moran (Bess).

When push comes to shove, one really must wonder if there is a more pernicious commercial force at play. When in doubt, it's always best to follow the money. The year 2010 marked the 75th anniversary of the world premiere of Porgy and Bess (which, for those who have conveniently forgotten, took place in the very same Alvin Theatre where the Gershwins premiered Girl Crazy on October 14, 1930). So, if you want to get all pissy and technical about it, there already is a "Broadway version" of Porgy and Bess.

However, the passage of 75 years essentially means that the intellectual property rights to the original version of Porgy and Bess have expired and the work is now considered part of the public domain. As a note in the program states: "The worldwide copyrights in the words of George and Ira Gershwin for this presentation are licensed by the Gershwin Family." Thus, this new performance version has a lot less to do with introducing Porgy and Bess to new audiences than it does with creating a new revenue stream.

The denizens of Catfish Row head for a picnic on Kittiwah Island in
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical
(Photo by: Michael J. Lutch)

For the sake of clarity, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical should be renamed The Gershwin Estate's Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical and quickly relegated to the dustbin of musical history where it belongs -- right next to Beethoven's Ninth for Dummies.