Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Year, Another Opening, Another Show

On May 16, 1965, a new musical by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley opened at the Shubert Theatre. With a cast headed by Newley and Cyril Ritchard, the show's biggest hit was a solo for its star entitled "Who Can I Turn To?" However, in the second act of The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd, baritone Gilbert Price introduced "Feeling Good," which went on to be performed by a wide variety of pop artists ranging from Nina Simone to Jay Z, from Bobby Darin to Brian Stokes Mitchell.

In the stage musical, this song was sung by Price as "The Negro" (who manages to win a game of class warfare by going behind "Sir's" back). The following two clips allow listeners to compare Price's heartfelt rendition of the song with Michael Bublé's cynical musical video.

As we embark on a new year, we celebrate a time for hope, change, and renewed optimism. One could start the year off with Tim Wu's fascinating article entitled Netflix's War on Mass Culture (Binge-viewing was just the beginning -- Netflix has a plan to rewire our entire culture). I prefer, however, to concentrate on a different development in the world of network television: NBC's recent broadcast of a live performance of The Sound of Music. Although many criticized Carrie Underwood's acting, this adventure in live television opened a door to a bright new future for Broadway musical classics.

While some people have already suggested a made-for-television version of 1966's Mame with Cher in the title role (wouldn't Bebe Neuwirth make a great Vera Charles!), I'd love to see a production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown starring Reba McEntire and Seth MacFarlane. One cannot, however, understate the cultural importance of digitally preserving some of America's great musicals.

    There are numerous benefits to taking the approach NBC did with The Sound of Music.
    • The ability to attract major stars who would not want to be tied down to a one-year or two-year contract requiring eight performances a week.
    • The ability to hold several weeks of rehearsals which lead up to the taping a live performance (after which the cast can be released).
    • The ability to bypass sustained marketing campaigns to boost ticket sales.
    • Potential repeat broadcasts (which can draw advertisers).
    • The potential for DVD sales to build a new revenue stream.
    There are plenty of musicals I'd like to see broadcast live using this format. An obvious choice would be Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler as Dolly Levi, Harvey Fierstein as Horace Vandergelder, Lea Michelle as Irene Molloy, Kristin Chenowith as Minnie Fay, Justin Timberlake as Cornelius Hackl, and Daniel Radcliffe as Barnaby Tucker.

    But what about some musicals which were extremely popular with audiences but are either too expensive to earn a return on investment in a commercial run or have simply fallen from the public's awareness? A quick list of potential candidates would include:

    * * * * * * * * *
    Many people mistakenly assume that, after the holiday season, most theatre companies would want to take a breather. However, in some cities, January marks much more than the start of another year. It's a time when smaller companies can capture the media spotlight. It's a time when audiences who were exhausted by the traditional holiday offerings can look for a challenging change of pace.

    Several upcoming Bay area productions demand attention.  First up at bat is the Bay area premiere of Stephen Sondheim's last musical (Road Show), which will be presented by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theatre. In the following clip, Claybourne Elder (who was in the New York production at the Public Theatre) describes his experience in the production and sings "The Best Thing That Ever Happened."

    * * * * * * * * *
    The following weekend, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival stages its annual winter event at the Castro Theatre. The Little Tramp at 100 is a full day dedicated to celebrating the centennial of Charlie Chaplin's first screen appearance in 1914's Making a Living. The afternoon commences with a program of three shorts (1916's The Vagabond, 1917's The Cure and Easy Street).

    Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush

    Full length screenings of 1921's The Kid and 1925's The Gold Rush (for which Chaplin also wrote the musical score) will be accompanied by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock conducting. This being San Francisco, the obligatory Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest will take place at 4:00 p.m.

    * * * * * * * * *
    Hot on the heels of the Chaplin Centennial Celebration is the 18th Annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival. Opera fans will be especially interested in the Friday, January 17 centerpiece screening of Ludwig II starring Sabin Tambrea as King Ludwig of Bavaria with Edgar Selge as composer Richard Wagner. Written and directed by Marie Noelle and Peter Sehr, the film's trailer points to a wealth of visual, dramatic, and musical riches.

    * * * * * * * * *
    February brings the two back-to-back world premieres.  On Tuesday, February 4, Taylor Mac's provocative new play, HIR, debuts at the Magic Theatre. Anyone who was lucky enough to see the Magic Theatre's production of The Lily's Revenge in April of 2011 will be curious to see what this controversial artist has in store (I strongly recommend reading I Believe:  A Theater Manifesto by Taylor Mac). The promotional material for HIR explains that:
    "A U.S. marine working in Mortuary Affairs, Isaac comes home from the war to take care of his father, who has recently suffered a debilitating stroke. His newly enlightened mother is determined to forge a deliriously liberated world for her two wayward children: Isaac (who was recently discharged from the army under dubious circumstances) and Max (tender, jaded, and sculpting a third-sex gender identity for hirself) . But will the newly radicalized Paige and Isaac's transgendered sibling make things easy for him? HIR is a tragedy about the way we care for and bury our dying ways of life."

    The following night, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre will present the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's new play, The House That Will Not Stand. Those who were present at the world premieres of Gardley's And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (Fall 2007 at Cutting Ball Theatre) and This World in a Woman's Hand (Fall 2009 at Shotgun Players) already know that the Oakland native is a major talent.

    Commissioned by Berkeley Rep, The House That Will Not Stand was nurtured at The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work).

    * * * * * * * * *
    Back when he was General Director of Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley was one of the strongest proponents of opera companies performing popular Broadway musicals. In addition to producing tours of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! (with Carol Channing repeating her triumph as Dolly Gallagher Levi) and Scott Joplin's ragtime opera, Treemonisha (which was televised over PBS in 1986), Houston Grand Opera won a Tony Award in 1977 for producing and recording the full-length "opera house" version of Porgy and Bess (which toured the United States and Europe).  HGO's 1995-1996 revival of Porgy and Bess (which was co-produced by nearly a dozen American opera companies) also traveled to Japan.

    Not only did HGO present a stunning production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, in the Spring of 1989 I accompanied the company to Egypt where its production of Show Boat was one of the offerings in the inaugural season of the new Cairo Opera House. A new production of Show Boat, co-produced by the Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and San Francisco Opera will dock at the War Memorial Opera House on June 1st for 10 performances.

    With a cast headed by Nathan Gunn (Gaylord Ravenal), Heidi Stober (Magnolia Hawks), Patricia Racette (Julie LaVerne), Morris Robinson (Joe), and Angela Renée Simpson (Queenie), the production will be conducted by John DeMain (who led the tour to Cairo). Directed by Francesca Zambello, this promises to be a first-class production of one of the most important works in the history of the American musical theatre. The following four clips offer a preview:

    Sunday, December 22, 2013

    The Edgy Thrills of Extreme Storytelling

    Although it's convenient to think of a ride on MUNI as a gift of free theatre, nothing compares to the wonders that transpire while you're asleep. Whether taking a nap or going for a full eight hours of shut-eye, the periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep offer some of the most startling and imaginative visions a person is ever likely to experience.

    Dreaming involves a lot more than merely emptying your brain's cache. Images that have been warped, shaded, and revised in ways that go far beyond Photoshop go streaming through one's imagination with a rapid-fire gusto that easily outstrips conscious thought. Wildly improbable scenarios transport the mind into weightless (and often fearless) realms of possibility that, in more traditional forms of storytelling, would rely heavily on magical realism.

    Some dreams are quiet and sardonic. The other day I awoke from a dream sequence in which I was seated on a toilet in a large room as Woody Allen and a famous actress stood in front of me, waiting to use the facility. In an attempt to act polite and seem accommodating, I said "Look, I'm squeezing extra hard just for you......"

    On other occasions, the sheer physicality of one's dreams can be so intense that it makes the best CGI scripting seem downright puny. One night I dreamt that I was looking through an apartment's glass window toward downtown San Francisco when I witnessed a gigantic explosion. There was no sound and everything else stayed perfectly calm as I watched a huge conflagration engulf an entire city block.

    With spontaneous bursts of creativity that can make a person feel like he is traveling in new dimensions, dreams offer the kind of visual and dramatic thrills one rarely finds in real life. Yet many miss out on the magic of dreams because of their need to quantify and control the experience. I once had a roommate (a huge science fiction fan) who insisted that he could program his dreams by deciding what he wanted to dream about. He totally missed the point.

    The developers of two new mobile apps are urging users to record their dreams so that their input can be stored in a huge database of dream material.

    What these engineers fail to grasp is that most users will lack the language skills, vocabulary, clarity of vision or force of memory to accurately describe what transpired in their dreams. Why? Because the power and magic of dreams can neither be bottled nor digitally preserved.

    Nevertheless, someone who is a heavy dreamer probably has had his powers of imagination stretched and toned like a dancer's muscles so that it can be used as a powerful source of inspiration. From Homer and Aesop to Voltaire and Tolkein, writers have created incredible tales capable of provoking fantastical visions.

    My own taste favors the kind of author whose perverse sense of humor joins hands with a ribald talent for magical realism. For the past two decades Christopher Moore's comic novels have introduced readers to talking fruit bats and cetaceans who crave pastrami (Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings). From the Island of the Sequined Love Nun to The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, he has taken readers on fabulously improbable adventures.

    Whether telling his own version of the story of Jesus in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal or turning Shakespeare's story of King Lear upside down and inside out in Fool, Moore's hyperactive imagination never fails to impress.

    Moore is probably most famous for his trilogy of comic vampire love stories set in San Francisco (Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me), which are a far cry from Count Dracula.

    * * * * * * * * *
    An appreciation of Chris Moore's prowess as a storyteller (I particularly loved Sacré Bleu) comes in handy when experiencing the deliciously perverse tale of Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness. The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a new production of Anthony Neilson's black comedy that was cheekily directed by Beth Wilmurt on a unit set cleverly designed by Nina Ball.

    The Scottish playwright (who claims he got booted from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for insubordination) had his first success when Normal: The Düsseldorf Ripper was performed at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival ("It got me some attention, possibly because it was about a serial killer"). A firm believer that part of an artist's job is to explore and define moralities, Neilson stresses that "No matter how shitty life gets, there's a part of your brain saying that this is good material."

    Patrick Kelly Jones and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
    Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

    Part of Neilson's comic strength lies in his ability to find laughs in the most bizarre places. His script contains an hilarious theatrical echo effect as well as the following brilliant line: "He said there was no place in the Catholic church for the sexual molestation of children, so they're building one."

    Would you ever imagine Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) as the star of a romantic comedy?  Perhaps not. Yet, as portrayed by a troupe of traveling actors, the characters in Edward Gant's stories seem to be ripped from the pages of Ripley's Believe It Or Not! -- or on loan from P.T. Barnum's inexhaustible freak show.
    • One is a young woman named Sanzonetta Tutti who suffers from hideous acne (a skin condition so foul that, upon maturing, the cheese stored in her facial zits is transformed into precious pearls that can be squeezed from the pustules on her face. (After seeing this play, no one will ever think of the French word "pamplemousse" as merely another term for the pomelo fruit).
    • Another is a Victorian era rake, a narcissistic lover named Salvatori Avaricci whose lust for conquest causes him to abandon his oozing, pimpled girlfriend in order to hook up with a mysterious oyster named Martine.
    • A third is a man whose brain must be drilled open before the audience by a fakir atop a mountain in Nepal in order to remove the memory of his beloved, who was stung by a bee and died at a picnic
    • A fourth is an actress comically dressed as a back alley abortion.
    • A fifth is a giant teddy bear who desperately longs to be served an imaginary cup of tea.
    Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
    Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

    Instead of paving a Scottish equivalent of the yellow brick road, Neilson's words build an outrageous path that leads toward a bubbling cesspool of absurdist entertainment (imagine what would happen of Seth MacFarlane and Quentin Tarantino tried to build a vaudeville act together). As the playwright explains:
    Edward Gant marked quite a change in my writing style. I'd never been a realist, particularly, but I'd largely stuck to a naturalistic style and more domestic settings. Gant was the moment when I really began to let my imagination run free, to embrace a more theatrically dynamic style and, basically, to have a little more fun with things. It was that moment when I realized (as many artists before me have realized, and as Gant himself says) that the truth of life lies least of all in the facts. Gant is the only play I've written that actually addresses the nature of art and storytelling. But it's full of things that make me laugh. There's a lot of what some might call ‘low-brow' sitting alongside more sophisticated material. I've never been afraid of that kind of juxtaposition and that might be where my Scottishness comes in… a certain earthiness doesn't disqualify something as a work of serious intent.”
    Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
    Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

    The amazing thing about Neilson's play is how it creeps up on you before sweeping you off your feet and pulling the rug out from underneath. At first, it's hard to figure out the playwright's intentions (or whether the vaudevillian shtick is headed anywhere). But, just as the storytelling becomes almost too bizarre for words, one of the actors steps out of character to argue with his fellow actor/manager, Edward Gant. At that point the show suddenly veers off in a new direction focused on the meaning and importance of theater in our lives.

    Blessed by Christine Crook's often hilarious costumes and Jake Rodriquez's excellent sound design, this production should not be missed by anyone who considers himself to be a true culture vulture. With Brian Herndon narrating as the egocentric, opium-addicted Gant, the evening unfolds in the highly capable hands of three extremely versatile actors:
    • Ryan Drummond appears as Salvatori Avaricci, Sergeant Jack Dearlove, Edward Thomas Dawn, a doctor, a pimple, and an absurdly thirsty bear.
    • Patrick Kelly Jones takes on multiple roles as Nicholas Ludd, a Nepalese fakir, and a deceitful Italian sister.
    • As an actress named Madame Poulet, Sarah Moser appears as the Princess of Pustules, Louisa von Kettelmein, a back alley abortion, and a bear.
    Patrick Kelly Jones in Edward Gant's Amazing 
    Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

    Performances of Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness continue at the Ashby Stage through January 12 (click here to order tickets). I'd easily rate this as one of the most astonishing Bay area productions of 2013.

    Saturday, December 21, 2013

    Pushing The Envelope

    Many claim that theatre holds a mirror up to society. But all too often, when society gets a look at its reflection, the results are not pretty. Boris Aronson's famous set design for 1966's controversial Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, featured a mylar mirror suspended above the stage at such an angle that members of the audience seated on the main floor could see their reflections (almost like the ghosts of debauchery past) at various moments during the show.

    Boris Aronson's set design for Cabaret

    No matter how one dresses things up with sets and costumes, there is a certain element of truth telling that finds special power onstage. From the stock commedia dell'arte character of Arlecchino (Harlequin) to King Lear's fool; from the title character in Verdi's Rigoletto to Danny Kaye's performance in The Court Jester (1956), it is the hired buffoon who, though he be surrounded by liars and cheats, can speak the truth without fear of retaliation.

    For monologists who write their own material, a fetid, fervid, fevered, and fustian imagination is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider Martin Dockery's bravura performance in the following clip:

    Those who remember Mike Daisey's March 2012 mini-crisis (after questioning the integrity of Apple's labor practices in Chinese factories) won't be at all shocked to learn that Daisey has not let up in his angry quest for some solid truth telling. Here he is, at 2011's Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, urging his audience to Kill The Corporation.

    * * * * * * * * *
    A recent posting on Facebook led me to a fascinating article by Jen Dziura entitled "When Life-Hacking is Really White Privilege." If 2013 ends on some notes of utter ridiculousness, there can be no doubt that some of the blame is due to Megyn Kelly's fatuous insistence that Santa Claus is white. Living in the intellectually challenged bubble known as the Fox News Channel, Ms Kelly obviously did not get the memo issued more than a decade ago from the producers of Queer Duck:

    Directed by Joe Brancato and produced by Combined Artform, Jeffrey Solomon recently brought his one-man show entitled Santa Claus Is Coming Out to the Eureka Theatre for a brief holiday run. It's a shame the opening night audience was so small because his monologue proved to be surprisingly touching and relevant.

    The founding artistic director of Houses on the Moon Theatre Company, Solomon portrays 20 characters ranging from a flamboyant Hispanic queer to Mary Ellen Banfield (a conservative activist fighting to institute a Santa No Fly Zone); from Santa's agent to Santa's sexy Italian lover, Giovanni.

    According to Solomon, the play was inspired by the debate on providing gay role models to children, and the parents’ rights movement to keep gay issues out of the classroom. His protagonist is an adolescent boy who wants a Barbie-like doll instead of a truck for Christmas (a phenomenon recently captured by Nick Corporon in his short film entitled Barbie Boy).

    While Gary's mother is willing to indulge her son's wishes, his macho father is much less understanding. Gary's letters to Santa ultimately convince the famous icon to come out of the closet, even if it means losing lucrative advertising contracts with megacorporations like Coca-Cola.

    Solomon's astutely written monologue takes some interesting twists and turns. What ultimately wins over the audience is his genuine warmth as an actor. The following clip from one of Solomon's other monologues (MotherSON) gives a sample of his dramatic range.

    Thursday, December 19, 2013

    Here's What Family Values Really Look Like

    One of the joys of watching world cinema is that it takes you outside your standard frames of reference. In some cases this means stories with fewer guns, gore, and explosions. In other situations, it simply means that the influence of Jesus is never a given.

    Consider, if you will, a short documentary by Josh Kim that follows a handful of ladyboys in Bangkok as they take their chances in the national lottery for military service. Note the care with which military personnel comfort young men as they learn whether they will be exempt or subject to the draft. It's a touching ceremony unlike anything you would ever see in America's armed forces.

    When it comes to narratives that challenge the traditional concept of family values, the fresh perspectives gained from world cinema can seem like a breath of fresh air. Here in the United States it seems as if the people who bray the loudest about family values are the people who are incapable of practicing what they preach.

    Need an example?  Try Minnesota's Archbishop John Nienstedt, who spent $600,000 in church funds to lobby against Minnesota's same-sex marriage initiative and sent  anti-gay DVDs (unrequested) to 400,000 Minnesota homes in an attempt to get voters to ban same-sex marriage. In September 2013, Nienstedt claimed that "Satan is the source of same-sex marriage." But on December 17, Nienstedt announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his ministry after allegations surfaced that, during a photo session several years ago, he had inappropriately touched an underage male's buttocks.

    Would you leave your underage son alone with this man?

    Those of us who have, over the course of our lives, built extended families (whether due to necessity or serendipity) know what a blessing it is for someone to take us into their life. Although many people think of the American family as a 1950s-style nuclear household unit, extended families evolve in curious patterns.
    • Some extended families develop in the traditional sense as children grow up, fall in love, marry, and produce offspring.
    • Others seek to create new families after being thrown out of their homes by hyperreligious parents who object to their lifestyle.
    • Some extended families result from the kind of social networking found in places of employment, bars, and gyms.
    • Others develop around hobbies (birdwatching, film festivals, cooking classes) or volunteer activities.
    • Some extended families develop as casual sex partners begin to play a steadier and more intimate role in a person's personal and/or professional life.
    • Others develop through invitations to join a pre-existing social group.
    For people who have come out of the closet (or are still struggling to embrace their sexual orientation), an extended family of LGBT friends is a lifeline that can provide emotional support through thick and thin. Often, the person who can best listen to and understand someone else's problems may not be a blood relation (especially if religious dogma has poisoned the environment). Sometimes a profound shock to one's basic assumptions (or a rude challenge to the conventional wisdom) can even lead to introspection, a change of perspective, and a surprising new lease on life.

    * * * * * * * * *
    In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened Facing Windows, a poignant film by Ferzan Ozpetek (a Turkish screenwriter and director with an astonishing ability to cut through to the emotional core of what's happening in people's lives). On first glance, it might be tempting to think that this film is all about love, lust, lost opportunities, and luscious desserts.

    Ozpetek initially gained fame in 1997 with Hamam (Steam: The Turkish Bath).  Subsequent films have included Harem Suare (1999), Sacred Heart (2005), Saturn In Opposition (2007), A Perfect Day (2008), Loose Cannons (2010), and Magnifica Presenza (2012). I recently had a chance to watch his 2001 film, The Ignorant Fairies (His Secret Life), which proved to be utterly fascinating.

    His Secret Life begins as Antonia (Margherita Buy) is seen moving through the galleries of an art museum in Rome. A handsome stranger chats her up and suggests they go back to his place. She politely declines his offer, explaining that she's waiting for her husband, Massimo (Andrea Renzi), who is always late.

    Antonia's niece, Nora (Edilberta Caviteno Bahia) has been staying with Antonia for the summer and, although her uncle is often away on business, it would seem that Massimo and Antonia are well off, have a loving relationship, and are comfortably settled in their home. However, when Massimo is unexpectedly killed in a traffic accident, a note found on the back of a painting delivered to their home leaves Antonia convinced that her husband was having an affair with another woman.

    Poster art for His Secret Life

    A physician with solid research skills, Antonia is determined to track down the woman and find out about this secret life that her husband kept from her. What she eventually learns is that Massimo (who was bisexual) had been in a relationship with Michele (Stefano Accorsi) for nearly seven years and was considered a key member of Michele's extended family of social outcasts. Among these are:
    • Mara (Lucrezia Valia), a tall blonde transsexual who wants to go home to attend a wedding but fears her family's rejection.
    • Serra (Serra Yilmaz), a chubby woman with blue hair who was raped in her youth. 
    • Emir (Koray Candemir), Serra's free-spirited bisexual younger brother who makes his living as an itinerant freelance photographer.
    • Ernesto (Gabriel Garko), a close friend who is dying of AIDS.
    • Luisella (Rosaria De Cicco), a blonde supermarket cashier.
    • Sandro (Luca Calvani), a young man with a crush on Michele.
    • Israele (Carmine Recano), a new friend recently introduced to the group.
    Coping with her husband's betrayal while discovering the rich and loving life he shared with his "other" family is an eye-opening experience for Antonia. Initially dazed and confused by her discovery, she soon ends up helping to care for Ernesto while trying to understand how her husband could have had a relationship with Michele about which she was totally clueless.

    Ozpetek includes a wonderful touch that involves a book of Nazim Hikmet Ran's poems, which Massimo had once gone out of his way to purchase as a gift for Antonia. It turns out that Massimo knew absolutely nothing about poetry (the passion for the poet's work was unknowingly shared by Antonia and Michele).

    His Secret Life is a film for mature audiences who can deal with the messiness of love as it occurs in real life (as opposed to some neoconservative Christian fantasy world). In the following scene, Massimo's wife and lover share their grief over Ernesto's death until they reach a point where things get decidedly awkward.

    Beautifully written and directed, His Secret Life is available on Netflix. I highly recommend it as a poignant experience in death, mourning, confusion, understanding, and a betrayed widow's realization that she needs to get on with her life.

    * * * * * * * * *
    One of the most endearing films shown during the Frameline 37 Film Festival came from Taiwan. If nothing else, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? makes audiences believe in romance and the power of true love to overcome societal prejudices.

    Weichung (Richie Jen) and Feng (Mavis Fan) with their son
    in a scene from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

    Richie Jen stars as Weichung, a shy male optician in Taipei. Married for nine years to his best friend from childhood, he is the doting father of their six-year-old son, Awan (Chang Wei-ning). Weichung's wife, Feng (Mavis Fan), works as a clerk in a large corporation where her supervisor, Big Chen, seems overly fond of her. Although Big Chen is secretly in love with Feng, he can't act on his desires because he's her manager and she's an employee. Meanwhile, Feng's mother has been nagging the middle-aged couple to have a second child (at 38, Feng's biological clock is about to switch to alarm mode).

    Weichung's sister, Mandy (Kimi Hsia), is a narcissistic drama queen being wooed by Sen-Sen (Mayday's guitarist, Stone), a fool who could well be the Taiwanese equivalent of a schlemiel. Bored with the groveling Sen-Sen, Mandy dumps him after having a panic attack in a department store and stays home watching television, eating noodles, and indulging in romantic fantasies wherein her favorite male soap opera stars magically keep appearing out of thin air to give her advice.

    Poster art for Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

    One day, a handsome young flight attendant from Hong Kong (Wong Ko Lok) sees Weichung through the window of his store and uses the ruse of needing new glasses as a way to strike up a conversation. One thing leads to another and Weichung (who lived a gay lifestyle before marrying Feng) is smitten. A chance meeting with his old friend Stephen (Lawrence Ko) -- a wedding photographer whose business manager/wife is a lesbian -- puts Weichung back in contact with his old gang of gay friends.

    Weichung's gay friends are a closely-knit group

    As Weichung and Thomas fall in love, there is increasing stress in Feng's workplace because of possible layoffs. After a cutback in staff is announced, the employees are shocked when Big Chen resigns and recommends that Feng take his place. This, of course, leaves him free to confess his love for her. After learning that Weichung (who has shown no interest in having sex with his wife) is gay, Feng has to face some tough possibilities:
    • What happens if Weichung leaves her for Thomas?
    • What happens if Big Chen wants to marry her?
    • What happens if the change in their relationship leads to their son becoming estranged from his father?
    Thomas (Wong Ko Lok) kisses Weichung (Richie Jen)
    in a scene from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

    While the film draws laughs as Weichung's band of gay friends try to give Sen-Sen a much-needed makeover, it is Feng who (quite surprisingly) saves Weichung from himself in a most touching and loving gesture. As the film's American-Chinese director Arvin Chen notes:
    "This movie is really about how struggling to find or maintain love in everyday life is something we all have to deal with. There’s really no easy answer, but somehow we keep at it (whether as a closeted gay man, a repressed working mom, or a crazy bride-to-be)."
    Chen's film benefits immensely from jazz composer Hsu Wen's musical score. Underlying the plot of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is the question of whether people who have repressed their own desires in order to appease societal standards are entitled to a second chance which allows them to fulfill their own goals in life.

    This film will be particularly poignant to women who unknowingly married a gay man who wanted to have a family as well as those whose first marriages (for whatever reason) simply didn't work out. Here's the trailer:

    Saturday, December 14, 2013

    In Search of Fresh Holiday Fare

    I'm always amazed by some of the historical gems that have been uploaded to YouTube. Who knew you could see Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in the fencing scene with Laertes from an 1899 London production of Shakespeare/s tragedy? Or a clip of "the Divine Sarah" as Queen Elizabeth in a silent film from 1912?

    Some people dread falling into a K-hole. My weakness is falling into a Y(ouTube) hole and bouncing around for several hours while watching archival footage -- like this pristine videotape of the original Broadway production of 1976's Pacific Overtures.

    While it's easy to find clips of Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard in the 1954 television version of Peter Pan, several musicals from the 1950s were broadcast live or performed before a studio audience.

    In 1958, CBS taped a performance of Wonderful Town starring Rosalind Russell and Jacqueline McKeever (the full show is available on YouTube starting with this clip):

    Despite the criticism of Carrie Underwood's performance as Maria in the recent live television production of The Sound of Music, NBC has announced that it will pursue plans to telecast future live stagings of classic Broadway musicals. It isn't often that a television executive makes me laugh out loud, but this comment from Robert Greenblatt (Chairman of NBC Entertainment) did the trick:
    “There is no snarkier universe than the Broadway world. It just sort of invites it. It’s okay. I’d rather have people deeply engaged than ignoring it. Somebody I once worked for said to me once, 'Everybody hated it but the audience.' And I’ll take that.”
    Each year, performing arts organizations search for something new to offer audiences during the holiday season. With an increasing sense of political correctness, many impresarios try to avoid anything that will seem too religious or preachy (like Gian-Carlo Menotti's one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors). This year Marin Theatre Company presented a brilliant production of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol directed by Jon Tracy while Berkeley Rep hosted Kneehigh Theatre's production of Tristan and Yseult.

    Based on the popular film Miracle on 34th Street, Meredith Willson's 1963 musical, Here's Love, proved to be a real holiday turkey. If I had my druthers, I'd like to see a regional theatre company take a crack at Celebration, a 1969 musical by the creators of The Fantasticks (Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones) and see what might happen if 42nd Street Moon exhumed 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping (with its Act I finale, "Be A Santa").

    In Beverly Hills, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts recently scored a hit with an adaptation of Miklós László's charming Parfumerie (which provided the inspiration for films like The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail). Of course, it's never too soon for another production of 1963's She Loves Me.

    For some theatre companies, the challenge of the holiday season is to find a way to make an old story seem relevant to contemporary audiences. Two of 2013's productions (based on classic pieces of literature) offered audiences an unintentional opportunity to do just that.

    I'm sure that Hans Christian Anderson never intended his lengthiest fairy tale, The Snow Queen (1845), to be viewed through the lens of a young man suddenly developing a critical drug addiction. Nor would anyone suspect that Louisa May Alcott's 1868 classic, Little Women, might have audiences wondering if the tomboyish Jo was little more than a clueless lesbian. But Christmas is supposedly a time of miracles and, if one chose to examine these stories through such modern lenses, at least the opportunity to do so was lurking in the subtext.

    * * * * * * * * *
    Each December, TheatreWorks stages a holiday musical in the intimate environment of Palo Alto's 300-seat Lucie Stern Theatre. While some of their productions (Into The Woods, The Secret Garden) have been magical, almost transformative theatrical experiences, I think the hidden ingredient to their success has always been that the audience genuinely cares about the characters it encounters onstage. As the company's artistic director, Robert Kelley, notes:
    "When I saw the Broadway production [of Little Women] in 2005, the soaring music, engrossing characters, and superb performances swept me away. But one element was missing in the elaborately produced world of the Great White Way: the intimacy of a close-knit household that America had long since claimed as its own. The show continued to haunt me, however, especially its comic focus on Jo's development as a young writer (which mirrored Alcott's own progress from the popular Gothic sensationalism of much 19th-century fiction to the highly personal introspective voice that made Little Women one of America's best-loved novels).

    The idea of revisiting the musical grew on me after our exuberant holiday productions of The Secret Garden and Big River flourished in the cozy confines of the Lucie Stern Theatre. Perhaps its intimate stage would summon the attics and anterooms, parlor sing-alongs, and back porch proposals that made the March family seem so endearing and familiar. Musical Director Bill Liberatore was soon on board, committed to giving the glorious songs the welcoming feel of a chamber musical, and designer Joe Ragey imagined a warm and flexible setting that could evoke many scenes and seasons -- from a snowbound New York City to a cluttered Concord attic."
    Aunt March (Elizabeth Palmer) tries to teach Jo (Emily Koch)
    a lesson in posture and etiquette in Little Women
    (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

    From Joe Ragey's elegant show curtain (and the Currier & Ives-style paintings on the set's sideboards) to the sensitive sound design by Jeff Mockus, this production was blessed with the kind of theatrical assets which should be standard fare (but, unfortunately, have become endangered species).
    • First and foremost is a narrative with momentum (a book by Allan Knee that knows where it's going and gets there without ever losing focus).
    • Second is a score by Jason Howland (with lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) that keeps the story within an identifiable musical framework without any fear that the performers will ever be overwhelmed by the musicians in the pit.
    • Third is an ambiance of Civil War era gentility, captured in Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes as well as the smooth and sensitive stage direction by Robert Kelley.
    • Fourth is yet another radiant performance by Sharon Rietkerk as Meg, the oldest of the March sisters who is the first to break their covenant by accepting a marriage proposal from John Brooke (Justin Buchs).
    • Last, but certainly not least, is Emily Koch's deliciously spunky yet unexpectedly poignant characterization of Jo (the tomboy and aspiring writer whose devotion to her sisters drives the narrative).
    John Brooke (Justin Buchs) proposes to Meg (Sharon Rietkerk)
    in Little Women (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

    Excellent work in supporting roles comes from Christopher Vettel as Professor Bhaer; Richard Farrell as the neighboring Mr. Laurence; Matt Dengler as his nephew, Laurie; Justin Buchs as Mr. Brooke, and Elizabeth Palmer doubling as Aunt March and Mrs. Kirk. Others in the March household include Elizabeth Ward Land as the stoic Marmee (whose husband is doing duty on the battlefield as a Civil War chaplain), Julia Belanoff as the sweet and ill-fated Beth, and Arielle Fishman as the social-climbing Amy.

    Amy (Arielle Fishman), Jo (Emily Koch), Meg (Sharon Rietkerk) and
    Beth (Julia Belanoff) are the four March sisters in Little Women
    (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

    Performances of Little Women continue through January 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre (click here to order tickets). This production will easily disarm the most hardened cynics and warm the hearts of those who have grown inured to the appeal of standard holiday fare.

    * * * * * * * * *
    I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the new musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale that recently received its world premiere from the San Jose Repertory Theatre. The marketing blurb describes The Snow Queen as:
    "...a fantastical coming-of-age adventure. As you follow Gerda through an unimaginably dangerous and whimsical world with singing flowers, a chattering crow and a talking river to save her friend, Kai, you’ll realize this isn’t your average bedtime story. An original pop rock score, alluring ballads, urban steam punk flair and the enigmatic Snow Queen turn this traditional fairy tale into an epic quest."
    Kai (Tim Homsley), Grandmother (Lee Ann Payne), and Gerda
    (Eryn Murman) in The Snow Queen (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

    With the company's artistic director, Rick Lombardo, acting as stage director and choreographer (in addition to co-authoring the book and lyrics with producing artistic director Kirsten Brandt and composer Haddon Kime), this new holiday venture aimed to take advantage of some impressive young talent from San Jose State University's theater and music departments. David Lee Cuthbert's excellent lighting and projection designs (coupled with the versatility of Erik Flatmo's break-away unit set) helped to spark the audience's imagination. Many of Frances Nelson McSherry's costumes were fancifully designed.

    Gerda (Eryn Murman) and the Old Crow (Jason Hite)
    in The Snow Queen (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

    Unfortunately, at the performance I attended, there were noticeable problems with Steve Schoenbeck's sound design (which often transformed some of the cast's legitimately trained voices into unnecessarily strident squawking). This sound distortion was especially unwelcome during moments when the voice of Jane Pfitsch’s Snow Queen rose above the staff, making her lyrics barely intelligible.

    Jane Pfitsch as the Snow Queen and Tim Homsley as Kai
    (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

    Credit goes to Eryn Murman, whose lively portrayal of Gerda took her around the world in weighty ways. As the evil Snow Queen who seeks the secret to eternity, Jane Pfitsch demonstrated a powerful, near-operatic range with a solid stage presence.

    Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale about a young boy who sees the world with an icy realism instead of a child's awe (after being stabbed in the eye and chest with shards of cynicism from a magic mirror) is meant to tell a story about the bonds of friendship. However, with Tim Homsley's excellent portrayal of Kai as an impulsive young math whiz who, having been kissed by the Snow Queen, craves the sensuous touch of her deadly lips like a meth addict craves his next fix, Kai's troubles took on a startling resemblance to a drug dependency whose evil spell is broken by a kiss from his best friend.

    Tim Homsley (Kai) and Eryn Murman (Gerda) in The Snow Queen
    (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

    Others in the cast included Rhett George (as a troll, a river prince, a reindeer, and a snowflake), Cindy Im (as Rose, a princess, a bullying robber girl, and a snowflake), Lee Ann Payne (as the children's grandmother, a witch, a robber, a mother, a wise woman, and a snowflake), Jason Hite (as a flower, an old crow who accompanies Gerda on a magical journey, a  robber, a gang member, a pigeon, and a snowflake), Janice Engelgau (as a flower, a snowflake, and a pigeon), Summer C. Latimer (as a flower, a lady, a crow, a snowflake, and a pigeon), and Jomar Martinez (as a flower, a snowflake, and a pigeon).

    Although roughly the same length as Little Women, San Jose Rep's new musical painfully meandered back and forth across the stage with plenty of sound and fury that amounted to much less than the sum of its parts. That's not to say that the show (which boasts 30 songs) lacks assets -- only that they fail to gel into a cohesive whole.

    I left the theatre with the feeling that The Snow Queen's creative team had thrown everything they had onstage in the hopes that something would stick. Unfortunately, they ended up with a Christmas musical that, despite all the energy exerted by a young and appealing cast, proved to be surprisingly tiresome. Here's the trailer:

    Monday, December 9, 2013

    Is That All There Is?

    No one goes to the theatre hoping to be underwhelmed. And yet, on numerous occasions following a performance, one can head home feeling surprisingly unfulfilled. Part of this emotional letdown is due to the simple fact that theatre is a live medium. Sometimes there are brilliant surprises. At other performances, a feeling of limp disappointment can ensue. Contributing factors?
    • An actor may be having an off night.
    • The attendee may be tired, stressed, or feeling under the weather.
    • The acoustics of where one is sitting (a dead spot in an auditorium) or the oppressiveness of a production's sound design can have a severe impact on one's level of enjoyment.
    • At some performances, the cast finds an audience less responsive than usual.
    • A creative team of notable artistic pedigree may fail to meet one's expectations.
    • For some inexplicable reason, the "magic" just doesn't show up on the night one attends a highly-praised production.
    After decades of attending operatic performances (where factors such as an artist's vocal condition or a conductor's tempi can make or break an evening), I've learned to take certain types of disappointment with a grain of salt. In recent seasons I've also made peace with the fact that, for purely personal reasons, some narratives have less appeal for me than others. The bottom line is that, as a critic, one may hope to be objective but, as an audience member, one's reaction to anything is purely subjective.

    * * * * * * * * *
    Comedian Alicia Dattner (whose one-woman show entitled The Oy of Sex just began a holiday run at The Marsh) is a high-voltage performer eager to work the room, engage her audience, and use her life experience as comic and dramatic fodder for her monologues.

    Dattner's new show is structured very much like what Stephen Sondheim refers to as a list song. In essence, she entertains her audience with stories of fumbled attempts at love, lust, bisexuality, and wrestling with the conundrum of a Jewish girl learning how to indulge in polyamory without suffering from the usual attacks of guilt and low self-esteem. Underlying her desperation for approval are the familiar emotions of the underachiever suffering from impostor syndrome; the person whose enthusiasm propels her into awkward situations but whose overwhelming sense of inadequacy prevents her from enjoying her own success.

    Bottom line: Is the skill which allows someone to a tie a knot in a cherry stem with one's tongue something to be celebrated after one's tongue ring gets caught on a man's Prince Albert?

    As Dattner proceeds from describing her first attempt to kiss a boy in kindergarten through various sexually liberating experiences (her physical depiction of trying to eat out another woman in a karaoke bar while mentally searching for an escape route is hilarious), one becomes increasingly aware that she could have ended her joyfully self-deprecating monologue in at least a half a dozen spots without moving on to one more example of failure. And then another. And another. And another.

    At a certain point, Dattner's narrative started to remind me of a gay man I once knew who, every two weeks, would regale his friends with the intensely dramatic arc of his latest infatuation with a man who seemed destined to become his next husband. When I asked Bobby if he understood why few, if any of his romances lasted beyond 10 days, he was shocked to be told that most of the men he dated were semi-closeted tourists from out-of-town who arrived in San Francisco on a two-week excursion fare.

    Alicia Dattner (Photo by: Melissa Schwartz)

    During the first 30 minutes of Dattner's opening night at The Marsh there were numerous instances in which what seemed like well-rehearsed punch lines missed their target. Maybe she was having trouble warming up the crowd. Maybe she would have gotten a better response in a nightclub setting where the audience was drinking.

    But there's a problem here (what Dattner coyly refers to as a "Cooch-22"). The ultimate strength of The Oy of Sex comes from Dattner's realization that many of her emotional and sexual problems may have been due to a combination of her emotional neediness and an addictive personality. Weaning herself from drugs and alcohol while attending meetings of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is what finally sets her down a path toward a less frantic definition of self-acceptance.

    Alicia Dattner (Photo by: Robert Strong)

    One's reaction to Dattner's latest monologue may well depend on the ease with which one relates to certain embarrassing romantic situations, the extent to which one enjoys a female version of Woody Allen's self-deprecating shtick, or one's saturation point for hearing stories of self-inflicted defeats on the battleground of love.

    * * * * * * * * *
    What happens when a small regional theatre company stages a mediocre play by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright? Despite the leadership of a veteran stage director and a cast of highly capable local actors, there's no guarantee that the evening will gel. In the case of John Patrick Shanley's 2012 dramedy, Storefront Church, the San Francisco Playhouse's earnest staging felt oddly plagued by a theatrical equivalent of erectile dysfunction. In short, Shanley's play never seemed capable of rising to its own occasion.

    In many respects, Shanley's script depicts a cluster of people who, as Pope Francis tells us, have each fallen victim to the ravages of unbridled capitalism. Indeed, there is such a self-conscious sense of balance as each character's questionable morals and emotional weaknesses are laid bare that one gets the feeling of being forced to eat one's vegetables because "they're good for you."

    In his program note from the Artistic Director, Bill English writes:
    "I feel lucky the last three seasons, with Period of Adjustment, Bell, Book and Candle, and now Storefront Church to find stories that speak to all kinds of needs for connection we all feel at Holiday time, without preaching or appealing to any particular ethnic or religious groups. As Chester (our disillusioned man of God) says, 'We all feel lost" at times, disconnected from the community that helps give our lives meaning. And so, as San Francisco Playhouse continues to dedicate itself to building a more compassionate community, Mr. Shanley's play is a no-brainer bullseye to serve our mission."
    Each of Shanley's characters has a robust back story which propels him toward the play's redemptive climax: However, there is no escaping the fact that each one of these characters is a fool.
    • Jessie Cortez (Gloria Weinstock) is an financial fool. A religious Puerto Rican woman who, as the Christmas holiday approaches is eight months behind in payments for her home building improvement loan, she is deep in trouble with her bank 
    • Ethan Goldklang (Ray Reinhardt) is an old fool.  As Jessie's elderly, diabetic and secular Jewish husband, he hopes that he can die soon of a heart attack so that his wife can collect on his life insurance. News that Ethan's doctor has unexpectedly predeceased him gives the old man little solace.
    • Donaldo Calderon (Gabriel Marin) is a political fool.  As Borough President of The Bronx, he is trying to be the local hero who can bring business and jobs to his community. He is shocked, however, to learn that his mother co-signed Jessie's loan without his knowledge.
    Ray Reinhardt, Gloria Weinstock, and Gabriel Marin in a
    scene from Storefront Church (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
    • Reed Van Druyten (Rod Gnapp) is a pathetic fool. A loan officer at Jessie's bank who lacks both a sense of humor and any sense of empathy, Reed rose to great power and wealth in the business world and then watched helplessly as his little kingdom imploded. A torrid love affair gone wrong (during which his wife shot him in the face) has left Reed permanently disfigured. A man who was raised outside of religion, Reed has absolutely no understanding of what faith and community mean to others. Nor does he know how to behave in a church.
    • Tom Raidenberg (Derek Fischer) is a corporate fool. As Reed's boss, he's a capitalist tool eager to build a shopping mall in a decrepit Bronx neighborhood (even if it means evicting some people from their homes).
    • Chester Kimmich (Carl Lumbly) is a religious fool. A displaced, disillusioned, and deeply depressed preacher from New Orleans who relocated to The Bronx following Hurricane Katrina, he is still in a state of shock. Unable to connect with his faith, Chester imagines a giant black hole in front of him which has rendered him hopeless and helpless. Although Jessie rented Chester space in her building to use as a storefront church, his emotional and spiritual paralysis has left him unable to build a congregation to which he can preach in order to collect the funds with which he can pay the rent.
    Carl Lumbly and Gabriel Marin in a scene from
    Storefront Church (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    Throughout the play (which has been directed by Joy Carlin on a rotating set designed by Bill English), people try to bribe each other with cake, gingerbread, political deals, and suspiciously forgiven debt. While Shanley (who won numerous awards for Doubt: A Parable) insists that: "There is a dearth of places for people who have a spiritual hunger to satisfy -- and there's a dearth of places for people who have the hunger for community to satisfy," having been raised in a family of atheists, I often have trouble dealing with plays in which the credibility of faith and the goodwill attributed to organized religion are given a free pass.

    In Shanley's play, each person has something that could help another but is often prevented from "doing the right thing" by cultural influences. In his recent article for The Huffington Post entitled God Created Gravity: Why the U.S. Can't Keep Pace With Slovenia, Dr. Jeff Schweitzer points to the following crises of knowledge:
    • "As religiosity has ascended in American life, policy debates have become faith-based rather than being anchored in logic. Support for a policy position becomes unmoved by contradictory facts because proponents simply "believe" the position to be correct even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary."
    • "American religiosity has become an existential threat, undermining the foundation of our future prosperity by contaminating our educational system with superstition, fable, and myth.  We see this with evolution, vaccines, climate change, energy policy, and a host of critical issues that should be based in science but instead are hijacked by ignorance."
    • "Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally.  Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths."
    • "Many factors have brought us to this sad state of affairs, but we can no longer ignore the 600 pound gorilla and trumpeting elephants in the room.  Religion is killing us.  While our kids are being taught that God created gravity, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are learning about Newton and Einstein."
    • "The far right can stick their collective heads in the sand and talk about American exceptionalism, but the rest of the world is getting educated in the meantime.  America is indeed number one -- in self delusion."
    While Carlin has coaxed reliably sympathetic performances from Gabriel Marin and Carl Lumbly, I was particularly taken by Ray Reinhardt's portrayal of Ethan (which brought back memories of an elderly Eli Wallach) and Rod Gnapp, whose never-ending inventiveness at capturing the wounded souls of imperfect men made the most of Reed's battle-scarred face to deliver a character capable of surprising emotional growth during the course of Shanley's play. Here's the trailer: