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.

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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."

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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.

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