Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hungry For Love

In life, as well as in art, people struggle to control their cravings. For some, their key addictions may involve alcohol, tobacco, drugs, chocolate, and sex. But for others, affection, intimacy, and a source of constant love ranks high on the list of needs that could be considered luxuries, but go a long way toward making someone a happier and more bearable person.

How one goes about finding love is a tale as old as mankind. Neanderthal men supposedly dragging a woman back to their cave by her long hair. Others have found that sweetness, seductiveness, and song can accomplish similar results without violence or bruising.  In the following clip, Rebecca Luker, Audra McDonald, and Mary Testa perform "Sing For Your Supper," a classic from Rodgers & Hart's 1938 Broadway hit, The Boys From Syracuse (George Abbott's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, which was first performed in 1594).

Sing For Your Supper was one of the many delights on a menu of nearly 50 songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart that were performed during 42nd Street Moon's recent musical salon (Thou Swell, Thou Witty!) dedicated to the legendary songwriting team. Whether written for Broadway or Hollywood, their output was astonishingly prolific despite the fact that both men had major problems with alcohol (Hart was also a closeted homosexual).

While the songs Richard Rodgers composed while working with Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim, Martin Charnin, and Sheldon Harnick can often be found on recordings and YouTube, it's harder to find performance clips of some of Hart's more obscure lyrics. The following song, "Any Old Place With You" (from 1919's A Lonely Romeo) marked the team's professional songwriting debut.

Two decades later, their mood had definitely changed with "A Lovely Day For A Murder" (from 1940's Higher and Higher).

Greg MacKellan delighted the audience with his description of how Hart wrote "To Keep My Love Alive" for his friend, Vivienne Segal, to perform in the 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee. The ovation during the first out-of-town preview was so strong that Hart kept scribbling down new verses which he handed to Segal from the wings between each bow. In the following clip, Elaine Stritch offers her definitive version of the song:

With guest star Faith Prince and an ensemble consisting of Bill Fahrner, Debbie de Coudreaux, Juliet Heller, Heather Orth, and Michael Scott Wells, the evening's program ran the gamut from upbeat classics ("Falling In Love With Love," "With A Song In My Heart," "This Can't Be Love," "Thou Swell," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," and "Isn't It Romantic?") to the more sober, introspective numbers that have become American standards ("My Funny Valentine," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "Ten Cents A Dance," "Where or When," "He Was Too Good To Me").

The cast of 42nd Street Moon's Thou Swell, Thou Witty!

Of particular interest, was MacKellan's narration of how a musical number originally written for Jean Harlow to sing as a prayer in 1934's Hollywood Party was cut from that film and repurposed for that same year's Manhattan Melodrama as "It's Just That Kind of Play" (which was cut from that film as well). Hart later gave the song new lyrics which transformed it into "The Bad In Every Man" for a nightclub scene. Connee Boswell (of the famed Boswell Sisters) subsequently recorded the final version of the song ("Blue Moon"), which eventually became a standard ballad in the Great American Songbook.

With Dave Dobrusky at the piano, rarely-performed songs such as "Don't Tell Your Folks," "Glad To Be Unhappy," "Too Good For The Average Man," and "Pablo, You Are My Heart" delighted 42nd Street Moon's loyal audience. What often happens with such musical salons is that the sheer wealth of material tends to overwhelm the program. As a result, Heather Orth's rendition of "Johnny One Note" felt like a shot of adrenaline to a cast that was drowning in a surplus of riches.

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Do you have one of those friends?  You know the kind I mean, the friend who makes it almost impossible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant because of his or her wildly peculiar requests to the wait staff? Whether it's someone who insists that the water in her coffee be freshly boiled or the friend who won't eat any food that is green in color; whether it's the vegan who goes on a rant about whose eggs were sacrificed for your guilt-ridden omelet-related decadence at brunch or the person who insists that a salad be deconstructed to her liking, dining out with picky people can be a challenge.

Many years ago, I dined with some friends at a popular restaurant at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. One woman at the table sent her roasted chicken entrée back to the kitchen three times. When a concerned chef appeared at our table, she informed him that she had probably cooked more chickens in her lifetime than he had ever seen. "I specifically told the waiter that I wanted it well done, I wanted the meat dry. This bird is WET!!!!" she harrumphed.

Every now and then one comes across a sweet and sassy short film that hits the spot. With so many feature-length films coming out this year that are focused on food issues (Chef, Tasting Menu, Fed Up, The Trip To Italy), Lynn Smith's delightfully succinct gem entitled Soup of the Day is the perfect cinematic palate cleanser. In only four minutes, it captures the difficulty of being in love with someone who is an extremely picky eater. The ultimate solution when dining out? Order one item and one item only -- the soup of the day. Here's a teaser:

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In 1967, Arlo Guthrie's claim that "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant" entered the popular culture. Unfortunately, any character who gets served real food by a waitress in Dan LeFranc's family drama, The Big Meal, already has one foot in the grave and will soon exit stage left. That ritual (along with the ringing of a bell to indicate that hot food is ready for pickup from the kitchen) are the markers of passing time in a 90-minute play that depicts five generations of family life as played out on Nina Ball's handsome unit set for a suburban diner.

As directed by Kirsten Brandt, the San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of The Big Meal features four pairs of actors who, as the play progresses through time, represent four distinct generations.

From hookups to breakups, from engagements to dementia-related disengagement; from the appeal of corn dogs for the children to Cadillac margaritas for the adults, LeFranc's play gathers dramatic momentum as its cast inhabits the bodies of successive generations within the same family. As the playwright explains:
“I was working on Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, which has a time-jumping aspect, as it tracks the relationship of a father and son over the course of ten years during their time riding in a car together. The producer (P.J. Papparelli, Artistic Director of the American Theatre Company in Chicago) came up to me and asked me if I’d ever read Thornton Wilder’s play, The Long Christmas Dinner, which grapples with similar things. I read it and fell in love with it instantly  
My dad was a restaurant manager and my mom was a waitress in Chicago. As a result, restaurants were a large part of my childhood (we definitely ate out more than we ate in). There aren’t many plays that feature restaurants, and there’s more action to be found in that setting than just the stereotypical date scene. The formatting of the crosstalk and overlapping dialogue is central to this play because that’s how family gatherings and meals and restaurants are. People talk over each other. It’s chaos.”
“There’s so much overlap in our lives. Everyone fills the place of the people we care about. It felt true to me and compelling to me that the same actress would play her own mother-daughter-grandmother. I think it speaks very much to how we become our parents. And it seems, often times, that our boyfriend is a stand-in for our brother. Never mind the fact that it would be almost impossible to produce a play with a cast as large as the number of characters in this play; the play simply wouldn’t work if each character was played by a discrete actor.

There’s a big difference between making something occur and making it have an impact on an audience. I’ve learned that, oftentimes, it’s the simplest thing that can really land with an audience and really play well in the theatre. When I was first starting out, my trademark was my really florid stage direction. But in The Big Meal, the best and most impactful stage direction is simply ‘Nicole feeds Sam.’ In every production, that one action is just filled with so much information. You don’t need to try to put something on top of it.”
Playwright Dan LeFranc

Depending on the amount of noise in your daily life, there may be moments in The Big Meal that are difficult to endure. From children screaming and running in restaurants to adults who are constantly talking over each other in order to make their respective points, the ongoing cacophony makes the restaurant itself seem like one of the quietest settings imaginable.

The sturm und drang of family life continues, driven by a potent combination of passing time and headlong momentum. As individual actors start jumping into the shoes of one generation after another, The Big Meal often feels like a game of musical chairs in which the last character left onstage is destined to be the saddest and loneliest.

While the full stomach "death walks" of so many characters may tug at one's heartstrings, the most poignant (and lasting) image is of an elderly Nickie seated alone in the restaurant, surrounded by a deafening silence, as the grandmother who has become irrelevant to younger members of her family and who has outlived the people who meant the most to her.

Performances of The Big Meal continue through June 1 at San Jose Repertory Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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