Thursday, October 23, 2014

Life Can Be Such A Drag

It's that time of year again. October in San Francisco always evokes images in a resident's mind of:
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in October (Photo by: Daniel Leu)
  • Busy costume preparations for Halloween celebrations.
  • The sudden onslaught of pumpkin-flavored  everything.
  • San Francisco City Hall basking in the glow of orange lighting.
San Francisco City Hall in October (Photo by: Ramses Bulatao)

This month, two of the Civic Center's stages are awash in gender confusion. Over at the War Memorial Opera House two countertenors appearing in traditional male costumes must cope with a confused mezzo-soprano seeking revenge in yet another trouser role. Meanwhile, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, one of the Bay area's most talented drag artists is holding center stage in the kind of hysterical farce in which one of the more clueless characters is described as "an 11-inch dong that deserves to have my luggage tags hanging from it" and, to everyone's relief, subtlety is on sabbatical.

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The San Francisco Opera is presenting the company premiere of George Frideric Handel's romantic farcePartenope, which had its premiere in London some 284 years ago on February 24, 1730. The opera's American premiere did not take place until 1988, when it was staged by Opera Omaha (in 1998 it was co-produced by the Glimmerglass Festival and the New York City Opera).

The current production, directed by Christopher Alden, originated as a co-production between the English National Opera (where it premiered in October of 2008) and Opera Australia, which subsequently staged the work in Melbourne and Sydney. It may be the only operatic production whose press notes include a statement that "singing from behind the bathroom door is slightly amplified."

Philippe Sly as Ormonte in Partenope (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

Heavily influenced by the Dadaism and Surrealism movements of the early 20th century, the opera's plot has been updated to a 1920s Parisian salon where parties and card games are hosted by Partenope (who, in the original version, is the Queen of Naples). While everyone loves Partenope, she's not always sure whose love she can trust or, for that matter, whose love is worth reciprocating. As a result, much of the opera's action is based on misguided lovers chasing after those who either should not or can not return their affection. As Alden notes:
"Partenope is a subversive, urban, gender-defying work that is witty but, at the same time, raises questions about societal assumptions. The libretto turns the norm around so that the powerful monarch in this piece is a woman. The men are all vying for her political/romantic favors and, like anyone in power, Partenope can never be sure whether these people are attracted to her or her power. Handel takes that from the story and writes music that makes her a fascinating, sympathetic, three-dimensional character.

There's a very camp aspect to Handel's operas, especially this piece. It can't be proven that Handel was gay, but he was an unmarried man who chose to live in a sophisticated city, who had unmarried male friends in his circle and his relationship with powerful divas was a big part of his life. The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context. It's a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music."
Danielle De Niese as Partenope (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

Over the years, Alden's productions have been known for their gimmickry. Although his Partenope employs all kinds of modern touches from toilet humor to tap dancing (and has characters freely throw glasses and bananas against the walls), each sight gag is carefully calibrated to frame a character's motivation, frustration, and sense of inadequacy or rage. The audience around me chuckled in glee at many of Alden's gimmicks, clearly enjoying a night of Handel more than they had ever anticipated.

Alek Shrader as Emilio in Partenope (Photo by: Corey Weaver)

When push comes to shove, the quality of the singing is one of the biggest concerns in any production of a Handel opera. While strong performances came from mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (doubling as Rosmira and Eurimene) and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace (the lover who humped Rosmira and then callously dumped her after falling for Partenope's charms), I was shocked by the mushy coloratura work that compromised so much of tenor Alek Shrader's performance as Emilio. Baritone Philippe Sly's Ormonte (both in and out of drag) added a nice sense of balance to the ensemble.

Much of Alden's production requires singers who can not only act, but can move like dancers. Danielle De Niese had a luscious, intensely feminine appeal in the title role (wearing Jon Morrell's costumes with a rare sense of style and grace). As far as I'm concerned, however, the evening's top honors went to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who, as the timid and lovesick Armindo, not only sang magnificently but handled his tap dancing chores and pratfalls as if he had been born to physical comedy (not something one can say about most opera singers).

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo in Partenope
(Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

I was particularly taken with Andrew Lieberman's set designs for this production. Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera's momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers. Here's some footage from San Francisco Opera's production of Partenope:

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For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

That motto could easily be applied to Act I of the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of Charles Busch's stage farce, Die, Mommie, Die! (which, at its 1999 premiere in Los Angeles, was subtitled The Fall of the House of Sussman). For Act II, let me quote Alan Yuhas's take on the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera's controversial production of The Death of Klinghoffer: "It had all the deft touch of a sledgehammer."

Believe it or not, that's a compliment for Die, Mommie Die!'s director, F. Allen Sawyer, who has taken Busch's catty romp and used it as a template for the best kind of camp madness. Set in 1967, the plot revolves around a toxic Beverly Hills family whose lust for wretched excess is, at the very least, excessive. With references to numerous bitch fest B-movies from the 1950s as well as an ancient Greek tragedy, the cast of characters includes:
  • Sol Sussman (Joe Wicht), a fabled Hollywood producer whose luck at the box office has run dry. Head over heels in debt to the mob, Sol has been unable to finance his artistic dream of having Elizabeth Taylor star in a biopic about Billie Holiday. To make matters worse, a private detective has confirmed Sol's wife's infidelity (she's been screwing her sexy tennis instructor). Meanwhile, Sol's constipation has become the bane of this angry old Jew's existence.
  • Edith Sussman (Ali Haas), Sol's father-worshipping, mother-hating, Electra-like daughter who has some unresolved issues of her own to deal with.
  • Lance Sussman (Devin S. O'Brien), Sol's ditsy gay son who has been experimenting with drugs, finding new ways to express himself in a college theatre department, and can be obsessively captivated by the pull-chain switch on a table lamp in the family's living room.
Angela (J. Conrad Frank) and Sol Joe Wicht) in a scene
from Die, Mommie, Die! (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Angela Arden (J. Conrad Frank), Sol's diva-like wife who is desperately hoping to make a comeback on the cabaret circuit and has even landed a contract to perform in a small hotel in the Catskills.
  • Tony Parker (Justin Liszanckie), the not-very-bright gigolo who has been shtupping Angela while trying to convince her to move to New York with him where he hopes to resurrect his acting career. Tony is more than willing to put his hefty endowment to use titillating Edith and Lance if the ends will justify the means.
  • Bootsie Carp (Marie O'Donnell), the wise-cracking Thelma Ritter-like maid who, for years, has been dividing her affection between her employer and Richard Nixon.
Bootsie (Marie O'Donnell) and Angela (J. Conrad Frank) in
scene from Die, Mommie, Die! (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Clues drop with a resounding thud throughout Busch's play.
  • Who knew that Angela had such skill at throwing knives and scissors? 
  • Or that she could be driven to murder Sol with a silvery suppository (the size of an extra-large burrito) that had been laced with arsenic?
  • Why would Angela recoil at the sight of the LP recording she once made with her long-deceased identical twin, Barbara?
  • And why does Angela deliver so many lines as if she were channeling Bette Davis in Act II?
Devin S. O'Brien, J. Conrad Frank, and Marie O'Donnell in
scene from Die, Mommie, Die! (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Thanks to her enterprising children (who slip some LSD into Angela's evening cup of coffee), plenty of secrets are revealed against the background of Kuo-Hao Lo's deliciously vulgar unit set. While many may assume that the role of Angela would forever belong to its creator, Charles Busch, New Conservatory Theatre Center has triumphantly cast J. Conrad Frank as Angela.

Over the years, Mr. Frank has been perfecting his own cabaret act as the failed Russian opera diva, Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (who is now forced to work at the cosmetics counter in Macy's). With a series of gowns designed by "Mr. David," the statuesque Mr. Frank dominates the stage in the manner of a performer who knows his way around high camp, low morals, divine outfits, and operatic posturing. His comic timing is rock solid. His Angela knows how to milk a line (as well as Tony Parker's prized piece of anatomy) like a champ.

J. Conrad Frank, Ali Haas, and  Devin S. O'Brien in a 
scene from Die, Mommie, Die! (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Although far more sinister than Madame Arcati's séance in Blithe Spirit, Angela's Act II acid trip is every bit as hilarious and revealing. In a comedy built to showcase and revolve around a fading star, Mr. Frank knows how to work Angela's diminishing force of gravity for all it's worth. The rest of the cast orbits around her with maniacal glee, with particularly energetic performances coming from Ali Haas and Devin S. O'Brien as Angela's scheming children. I also very much enjoyed Marie O'Donnell's performance as Bootsie.

Ali Haas, J. Conrad Frank, and Devin S. O"Brien in
Act II of Die, Mommie, Die! (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of Die, Mommie, Die! continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through November 2 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, October 20, 2014

They Beat Dead Horses, Don't They?

Sometimes an evening of bad theatre is not as mysterious as its author(s) intended. One can look for someone to blame -- the director, the actors, the costume designer -- but the real culprit is the playwright. What's the problem?
  • In some cases, a playwright is so in love with an idea that he simply can't let it go.
  • In other cases, a playwright is incapable of editing his own work.
  • In some instances, a playwright has hit on a good idea but doesn't know how to stop writing more and more scenes.
  • In other instances, what may have seemed brilliant in a playwright's mind (and might even have read well on paper to a producer) turns out to be a crashing bore onstage.
Sadly, this was the case with two dramas produced in repertory at the EXIT Theatre this month by the folks at Wily West Productions. Red flags start flying in my mind whenever I notice that the sound design is better than the script (or that the set design is more interesting than the acting). While it may be intellectually challenging to probe a production's weaknesses, what struck me as particularly odd with these two works were the bitter ironies that seem to have escaped their respective playwrights.

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Written by Morgan Ludlow and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, Drowning Kate is structured as the hybrid of a traditional ghost story and the tale of a mad scientist who has fallen much too deeply in love with his research project. Scott Cox appears as Dr. Harry Onslow, who has been working on a controversial medical process that could allow drowning victims who have suffered from hypothermia to be resuscitated and brought back to life. Needless to say, Harry is struggling with a few technical and personal problems as well.
  • Having been fired from several research jobs, he has resorted to "borrowing' computers, hardware, and software from his previous employers that will enable him to continue his experiments.
  • Harry's current residence is an isolated cabin near a lake. As the play begins, he has been cut off from civilization by a fierce storm and a lack of wireless connectivity.
  • His wife, Kate (Colleen Egan), who is also a physician, has grown bored with their research and is more than a little put out by the fact that Harry hasn't the slightest idea that she's three months pregnant. Kate is supposed to start a job at a nearby Indian reservation, which Harry interprets as an act of acute betrayal.
Harry (Scott Cox) cradles  Kate (Colleen Egan) in his arms
in Morgan Ludlow's Drowning Kate (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

After Kate mysteriously falls through the ice and drowns, Harry drags her body back inside and puts in a desperate call to his sister, Shelley (Genevieve Perdue), who drives eight hours through snow and storm to reach the cabin where Kate lies in a cold coma. Following Shelley's arrival (which brings a sliver of common sense back into Harry's life), brother and sister engage in trading accusations about who could have done a better job caring for their dying mother. Hint: Harry was always too busy with his research to participate in important family matters.

Meanwhile, as howling wolves (or could they be werewolves?) are heard throughout the storm, Kate starts to thaw, occasionally emitting animal-like grunts and terrifying screams that will have no trouble keeping the native wolves at bay. Harry, of course, is thrilled that he might get closer to meeting his research deadline with some concrete proof for his theory. Shelley is appalled by her brother's selfish delusions and Kate's obvious physical and mental deterioration.

Kate (Colleen Egan) stands over the sleeping Shelley
(Genevieve Perdue) in Drowning Kate (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Drowning Kate employs a series of videos in which the frustrated characters explain their concerns and motivations while scene transitions are taking place onstage. However, instead of approaching Drowning Kate as a story about an obsessed scientist who has compromised his clinical ethics and destroyed his marriage while in pursuit of his research goals, the play makes a lot more sense if treated as a metaphor in which:
  • Harry is a frustrated playwright whose latest project has gone through a series of unfulfilling workshops. 
  • Kate's dead (or "undead") body is the script that refuses to come to life.
  • The three-month-old fetus in Kate's womb is the hope for the play that might have been made viable if only Harry had acted like an expectant parent instead of an obsessive lab rat who has completely lost touch with reality.
Shelley (Genevieve Perdue) tries to communicate with what's left of her
sister-in-law (Colleen Egan) in Drowning Kate ((Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

* * * * * * * * *
Krista Knight's Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera may only last 70 minutes but there were times when I felt like it would never end. The great irony is that its protagonist, a house painter named Glen (Rick Homan), begins the play by explaining to the audience how much he cherishes silence (to the point where he and his wife have divided up their chores according to which ones require noise and which do best with silence). In her program note, Wily West's Executive Producer, Laylah Muran de Assereto, writes:
"One of the things I love about Krista Knight's writing is her ability to use foreboding and menace with a surgical control, gloved in poetry and vibrant imagery. She uses subtlety the same way our other playwright, Morgan Ludlow, uses bursts of absurdity; to disarm perception and open you to emotional possibilities. She seduces you with that poetry and then unnerves you with the animalistic, aggressive side of our human psyche. Rick, Cameron, Genevieve, and Scott bring you right into the disturbing reality of a family with secrets as experienced by an outsider who is himself perhaps the creepier and darker of them all, both for his fixation and his own secrets."
Rick Homan as Glen in Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

That's not how I reacted to Knight's drama, whose questionable charms quickly wore thin on me. I found it extremely curious that, for someone who supposedly craves silence, Glen can hardly keep his mouth shut. As someone who has invested so much time and love in painting the house which the audience sees, he's watched the family's children grow up and had to deal with the amorous advances of the family's boozy matriarch, Elaine (Cameron Galloway).

Elaine (Cameron Galloway) and Glen (Rick Homan) in
Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Glen may be at a loss to understand why Elaine's grown children, Maryella (Genevieve Perdue) and her sullen brother, Russell (Scott Cox), want nothing to do with him, it seemed pretty obvious to me. Having grown up, lost their innocence, and recently lost their mother, they're eager to sell the house and move on with their lives. What they have absolutely no desire to do is lock horns with the weird house painter who could never keep his nose out of their family's business.

Knight's clumsily-written drama (which requires its actors to handle several flashbacks) often felt stilted; its writing almost amateurish. Wes Cayabyab's stage direction did little to strengthen Knight's script. While Rick Homan and Cameron Galloway had their moments, Scott Cox and Genevieve Perdue's acting often proved disappointing.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Masterpiece Musical Theatre

Don't worry about the dead bodies. They're merely collateral damage incurred during the art of storytelling. Whether the victims were shot, stabbed, beheaded, poisoned, or had their throats slit, rest assured it was all in service to a good cause: musical theatre.

All too often the word "classic" is applied to a work whose artistic quality is exceptionally high and whose history has demonstrated an ability to retain its popularity throughout several generations or even centuries. In terms of operas and works of musical theatre, what are some of the stressors that can challenge a work to see how well it can survive?
  • Stage directors may strive to make a work more relevant by updating it to a different time period or relocating the action of its plot.
  • In order to increase their revenue stream, licensing agents may offer the rights to a fully-orchestrated version of a musical work as well as a reduced orchestration which can be performed without a traditional chorus.
  • For some works, cuts may be allowed in the score which will tighten the piece dramatically and bring it down to a more reasonable playing time. 
  • Conversely, many bel canto arias allow for the use of fioritura customized to a singer's vocal strengths.

Two well-established musical masterpieces returned to Bay area stages this month in exceptional productions which proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the strength and vitality of each work's score and libretto. The fact that they were so beautifully performed only added to the audience's sense of artistic fulfillment.

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The history of Verdi's opera, Un Ballo en Maschera (which had its world premiere in Rome on February 17, 1859) is a most peculiar one. The opera was inspired by the assassination of Sweden's King Gustav III (who was shot during a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm on March 16, 1792 and died 13 days later). During the opera's composition, Verdi ran into problems with Italian censors who forbade the portrayal of a monarch (much less a monarch's assassination) onstage.

On January 14, 1858, an assassination attempt in Paris on Emperor Napoleon III by three Italians caused further problems for Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma. The names of various characters were changed and the opera's location was transferred to Colonial Boston to remove any hint of the story's European roots. Until 1977, the San Francisco Opera's productions of Un Ballo en Maschera were all performed with the Boston setting. Since that time, all of the company's productions have used the originally intended Stockholm setting (both of which feature historically accurate costumes in which aristocrats frequently wore powdered wigs).

Poster art for Opera Zuid's production of Un Ballo en Maschera

Whether your soothsayer is called Madame Arvidson or Ulrica, your romantic lead is known as King Gustav of Sweden or Riccardo (Earl of Warwick and Governor of Boston), or your assassin is named Renato or Count Anckarstrom is of secondary importance to Verdi's magnificent score. In an era when performances of Un Ballo en Maschera can seem more functional than inspired, the San Francisco Opera pulled out a winner with its 2014 revival of Verdi's 155-year-old opera.

Heidi Stober (Oscar) and Ramon Vargas (King Gustav) in Act I
of Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera (Photo by: Corey Weaver)

Directed by Jose Maria Condemi (with the final scene's choreography by Lawrence Pech), the performance I attended proved to be a grand night for singing. Although I have not always been a big fan of tenor Ramon Vargas, he acquitted himself quite handsomely as the doomed King. As his best friend and assassin (Count Anckarstrom), Thomas Hampson was simply on fire. In a gripping and powerfully dramatic performance, the celebrated American baritone delivered the kind of impassioned singing that has become fearfully scarce in an era with a shortage of great Verdian voices.

Thomas Hampson as Count Anckarstrom in Verdi's
Un Ballo en Maschera (Photo by: Corey Weaver)

I found it particularly interesting that two of the heaviest soprano roles were performed by graduates of the Merola Opera Program. Veteran mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick delivered a riveting portrait of Ulrica in Act I while, as the deeply conflicted Amelia, Julianna Di Giacomo's healthy voice and solid musicianship were cause for celebration. Soprano Heidi Stober brought just the right amount of perkiness to the role of Oscar, the king's page.

Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia in Verdi's
Un Ballo en Maschera (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

Special kudos to Maestro Nicola Luisotti and chorus master Ian Robertson for their superb work in shaping Verdi's score and polishing the artists' phrasing to perfection. It's a little hard to give design credits for this production as costumes are attributed to John Conklin (who usually designs sets) and, according to the San Francisco Opera's press department, these sets have undergone so many alterations over the years that the original designer requested that his name no longer be associated with them.

No matter. The physical production worked well enough to keep the evening's focus on some glorious singing. Scott Conner (Count Horn) and Christian van Horn (Count Ribbing) offered strong support as the two conspirators with Efrain Solis (Christian), A.J. Glueckert (Judge), and Christopher Jackson (Amelia's servant) appearing in cameo roles. Here's some footage from the production:

* * * * * * * * *
If a person wanted to find a tie-in between the San Francisco Opera's production of Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera and Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Barber Street, it would take a stronger link than the fact that, in June 1984, it was San Francisco Opera's outgoing General Director (David Gockley) who was the first operatic impresario to produce Sweeney Todd (while he was General Director of Houston Grand Opera) and that Gockley will present Sweeney during the San Francisco Opera's 2015-2016 season. Instead, those familiar with the show's libretto will quickly point to the moment in Act I when Mrs. Lovett is explaining to Sweeney (a/k/a Benjamin Barker) what happened to his wife after he had been shipped off to a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia:
"Well, Beadle calls on her all polite
Poor thing, poor thing.
The judge, he tells her, is all contrite
He blames himself for her dreadful plight
She must come straight to his house tonight
Poor thing, poor thing.

Of course when she goes there
Poor thing, poor thing
They're having this ball all in masks..."
David Studwell and Tory Ross star in Sweeney Todd: 
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's hard to believe that the musical gore-fest created by Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler is now more than 35 years old (or that it has managed to establish itself equally well in the musical theatre as well as operatic repertoires). Throughout its celebrated and bloody life, Sweeney Todd has been performed in a semi-staged version in leading concert halls as well as in down-sized productions that use a smaller cast and reduced orchestrations. In some productions, prop razors that could spew fake blood have been supplanted by symbolic red lighting.

In 2004, John Doyle created a production at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, England in which the cast accompanied themselves on musical instruments. Following its transfer to Broadway, a touring version of Doyle's production was presented by American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 2007. Later that year, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter starred in Tim Burton's film adaptation of Sondheim's musical.
Spencer Kiely as Toby in Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

I was mightily impressed when Ray of Light Theatre presented Sweeney Todd in the 200-seat Eureka Theatre in the summer of 2012 and am utterly thrilled by the new production being offered by TheatreWorks down in Mountain View. Directed by Robert Kelley using a unit set designed by Andrea Bechert, this staging has been updated to October of 1940 and takes place during The Blitz in an abandoned factory that leads to a station of London's Underground.

Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) serves up some fresh, hot meat pies in
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While there are signs in the lobby requesting patrons to bring their gas masks with them into the shelter (auditorium) and plenty of World War II posters to create a sense of Great Britain at war ("Keep Calm and Carry On"), the updating works best with regard to Act II's "City on Fire" number, which is staged as the Luftwaffe's planes are dropping bombs on London. As Kelley notes:
"This time we’re in 1940 as Londoners carry on, even when forced underground by the nightly bombings of The Blitz. Often that subterranean world included entertainers, perhaps even entire theatre companies determined to continue rehearsal for an upcoming production – a production of Sweeney Todd."
Spencer Kiely as Toby in Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This TheatreWorks production has been exceptionally well cast with singing actors (as opposed to acting singers). David Studwell delivers a powerhouse performance as a rage-filled Sweeney with a voice to back up every drop of anger. He is ably matched by Tory Ross's characterization of Mrs. Lovett, which benefits immensely from a darker-hued, richer voice than many who have sung the role. The murderous duo receive strong support from Spencer Kiely as a wild-eyed Toby, Noel Anthony as the devious barber Pirelli, and Mia Fryvecind Giminez as the demented Beggar Woman.

David Studwell and Tory Ross star in Sweeney Todd: 
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Several cuts were made in the score, most notably Pirelli's scene pulling a tooth out of Toby's mouth and Judge Turpin's self-flagellating "Mea Culpa." However, because I was seated down front, I had a rare opportunity to wallow in the brilliance of Sondheim's writing -- not just the infamous Act I closer ("A Little Priest"), but especially the "Kiss Me" quartet sung by Anthony (a golden-voiced Jack Mosbacher), Johanna (Mindy Lym), Judge Turpin (Lee Strawn), and Beadle Bamford (Martin Rojas Dietrich).

Jack Mosbacher (Anthony) and Mindy Lym (Johanna) are the young lovers in
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As with Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is so meticulously constructed and dramatically articulate that it retains the power to awe audiences who have seen multiple performances of the work. While its musical and theatrical craft are nothing less than mind-boggling, in his program note, Kelley points to the work's larger cultural significance:
"Sweeney Todd is a play about the darkest corners of human existence. It’s also about our ways of dealing with evil: countering it with virtue, disarming it with humor, crushing it with force, transforming it into art. Among its intertwined themes, Sweeney Todd is about humanity’s fascination with evil and its corollary, violence.  Some part of us thrives on conflict; some genetic trait encourages us to force our point of view (or culture, or religion) upon another. When that instinct leads to violence it becomes the fodder of our nightly news: a punch in an elevator, a gunshot in the back, a village destroyed, a country overrun. We are at once repelled and transfixed. That’s how I see Sweeney Todd played out against a background of violence, a background of war.

Our first production was in 1992, prompted by the bombings of Baghdad displayed nightly on national television. It was set in London, 1916, the year the first bomb was ever dropped from an airplane on a city. That was then. Now, a sea of wars engulfs the world again. The advent of evil seems even greater, our involvement even deeper, whether our boots are on the ground or under a desk as we guide drones to distant human targets. Today, anyone can download a beheading on his or her phone, tablet, or even wristwatch."
David Studwell stars in Sweeney Todd: The Demon 
Barber of Fleet Street (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Conducted by William Liberatore, performances of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continue through November 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

Monday, October 13, 2014

Singular Sensations

For many decades, freak shows were popular attractions in vaudeville and circuses, where midgets and mutants (General Tom Thumb, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, Schlitzie the Pinhead) attracted curious onlookers. In his article entitled Freak Show: Most Popular Circus Sideshow Performers, Charlie Hintz writes:
"The Internet has been buzzing for awhile about the arrival of the latest American Horror Story season called Freak Show, which looks like it promises a dark take on the weird history of the circus sideshow. The trailers and promotional images have been representing all the classic sideshow archetypes, including extreme body modifications, pinheads, conjoined twins, ectrodactyly, and the bearded lady. At the time, these were the things of nightmares, only encountered in dimly lit tents when the circus came to town. Lurid banners and cabinet cards enticed curious crowds to part with their money for a glimpse of nature gone wrong."
General Tom Thumb, whose adult
height was 2 feet, 8-1/2 inches

Darren Bagert (who invested in the revival of 1997's Side Show that is about to open on Broadway) notes that, in some ways, Side Show is like Kinky Boots, “It’s about being an individual, and not changing who you are. That’s 2014 more than 1997.”

The term "freak show" has another meaning for musical theatre aficionados. For some, it can refer to a Broadway musical that opened and closed in one night (Kelly, Glory Days). For others it can refer to shows which suffered such bad reviews during their out-of-town tryouts that the producers cancelled their plans to open on Broadway (Prettybelle, Chu Chem).

Angela Lansbury in 1971's ill-fated Prettybelle 

The Bay area recently hosted two productions of musicals which could be referred to as freak shows for drastically different reasons.
  • One boasted a creative team that featured some of Broadways' most famous talents (Arthur Laurents, Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim); the other was the brainchild of a creative team that had one hit to their credit (Urinetown: The Musical).
  • One marked the third iteration in the evolution of a lead character; the other was written as the second installment of an anticipated trilogy (whose third chapter will take place in outer space).
  • One featured a protagonist whose emotions were essentially frozen; the other featured a cast of microscopic creatures whose willingness to take risks led to the creation of a new life form.
  • One featured hummable tunes while the other delivered a score that attempted to be a cross between operetta and pop rock.

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Although it managed to eke out 220 performances on Broadway in 1965, Do I Hear A Waltz? was not a happy experience for its librettist (Arthur Laurents), its composer/producer (Richard Rodgers), or its lyricist (Stephen Sondheim). By the time the show opened on Broadway, all three men had grown to resent each other.

Laurents's 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo (which starred Shirley Booth), had been adapted for the silver screen and given a happy ending in 1955 as Summertime (starring Katherine Hepburn). In attempting to musicalize The Time of the Cuckoo for Broadway, Rodgers (who had dispensed of the traditional chorus in 1962's No Strings) and his creative partners opted to eliminate both the chorus and dancers required for traditional production numbers and try to create a more intimate type of musical.

After the director, John Dexter, lost interest in the show, much of the staging was done by his assistant/choreographer, Wakefield Poole, who went on to establish a name for himself in gay cinema (Boys in the Sand, Bijou). Unfortunately, there is no getting around the fact that Do I Hear A Waltz? was, is, and always will be a peculiarly clumsy show.

The real problem is that its protagonist, Leona Samish, is an unlikable spinster.  After she gets drunk and turns on her fellow guests at a party she is hosting in Venice's Pensione Fioria, audiences quickly lose any sympathy for love-starved Leona.

Stephanie Rhoads (Fioria) and Emily Skinner (Leona Samish) in
Do I Hear A Waltz?  (Photo by:

The following 30-minute segment from 1965's CBS show, Camera Three, features an extended interview with Laurents, Sondheim, and Beni Montresor (who designed the sets and costumes for Do I Hear A Waltz?).  It's particularly valuable to hear the insights of Montresor (who grew up in Venice and created the "glow" that people associate with their romantic images of the city through his clever use of scrims and lighting).

I was lucky enough to catch two performances of the original Broadway production of Do I Hear A Waltz?. As I watched 42nd Street Moon's recent revival, I was surprised by some of the changes in the script.
  • I did not remember Leona describing how her father had died when she was 16, leaving her to raise her three brothers and sisters.
  • Nor did I remember Leona claiming to work at an advertising agency.
  • I was startled that Greg MacKellan, who usually tries to include as much of the original score as possible, failed to include Renato's song about "Bargaining" in this revival.
  • In Act II, I was shocked that what had been an argument over a jeweler insisting that Renato get a commission for his "sale" of a garnet necklace to Leona had been transformed into an ugly confrontation about counterfeit lire.
Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in Do I Hear A Waltz?
(Photo by: 

Subsequent research revealed that Laurents had revised the show's script for a 1999 production by the George Street Playhouse. One number which actually played out better than in the original production was the comical tango "No Understand." Where 42nd Street Moon's production really suffered, however, was in Dave Dobrusky's choice of tempos for Renato di Rossi's solos ("Someone Like You," "Take The Moment," "Stay").

Do I Hear A Waltz? is about lots of contrasts between the ways Americans and Europeans lived their lives a half century ago. The advent of transatlantic jet travel had suddenly made traveling to Europe much easier for the masses and many, like Leona, arrived in cities like Venice with unreasonable expectations (especially with regard to romantic matters). In trying to cram as much sightseeing into their busy tour schedules as possible, some underwent a great deal of culture shock with regard to the relaxed social and sexual attitudes of Europeans (for whom black market trading and extramarital affairs were accepted facts of life.

Emily Skinner (Leona Samish) and Tyler McKenna (Renato
di Rossi) in Do I Hear A Waltz? (Photo by: 

When Leona meets and is charmed by a handsome Venetian shop owner their personalities clash because of her cynicism, prudishness, and Renato's already complicated life. In the original production (partly because Sergio Franchi had been cast as the shop owner), Renato's songs were sung at a leisurely tempo which allowed the audience to luxuriate in the lush sound of Franchi's baritone while sensing that he lived life at a slower pace than the tightly-wound Leona.

The combination of Dave Dobrusky's faster tempos and Tyler McKenna's lighter voice caused the magic to evaporate from Renato's solos, which ended up feeling almost mechanical in nature. I also missed the original orchestrations by Ralph Burns who managed to hint at Venice's romantic appeal with an occasional well-placed mandolin.

Michael Rhone, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Emily Skinner, and \
Tyler McKenna in Do I Hear A Waltz? (Photo by: 

42nd Street Moon's revival was especially well cast in supporting roles with Stephanie Rhoads as Signora Fioria, David Naughton as Eddie Yaeger, Abby Sammons as Jennifer Yaeger, and Taylor Bartolucci as the maid, Giovanna. Jona Broscow (Mauro), Michael Rhone (Lloyd McIlhenny), Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (Edith McIlHenny), and Nikita Burshteyn (Vito di Rossi) made strong contributions as well.

The show rested on the capable shoulders of Emily Skinner, whose Leona Samish remained physically and vocally attractive even when her character's simmering bitterness and spite began to break through her outer armor. Skinner's characterization was smart and sure in ways that Leona could never be.

Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in Do I Hear A Waltz?
(Photo by: 

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Over the past few years I've been greatly impressed by the work done by the folks at Ray of Light Theatre. Not only does this company (under the superb musical direction of Ben Prince) do some of the best musical preparation in town, they have managed to attract the continued attention of a precious segment of Bay area audiences: the young professionals who are often nowhere to be seen at so many other theatre events.

Whether producing Sondheim musicals like Into the Woods, Assassins, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or more experimental works like Triassic Parq, Carrie: The Musical, and Jerry Springer: The Opera, they do a bang-up job on a mostly volunteer basis. Sets and costumes are often quite impressive, casting is strong, and each show is produced with extremely high professional standards.

Heather Orth as Jan-the-Unnamed in Yeast Nation
(Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

ROLT recently presented the West Coast premiere of Yeast Nation, which features a curious score by Mark Hollman. Here's how Greg Kotis (who wrote the book and lyrics for Yeast Nation) describes the show:
"It is the year 3,000,458,000 BC! The Earth’s surface is a molten mass of volcanic islands and undulating waves! The atmosphere is a choking fog lit by a dim red sun! And the mighty waters of the world are inhabited only by rocks, sand, salt, more rocks, a little silt maybe, and the great society of salt-eating yeasts – yes, yeasts! – that were the world's very first life form! Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), arguably the world’s first bio-historical musical, premiered at The Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska in 2007, made its lower 48 premier at The American Theater Company in Chicago, Illinois in 2009, and most recently played to great acclaim at The New York International Fringe Festival in 2011. Yeast Nation rose triumphantly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the fall of 2013! It will rise again in the fall of 2014 – in San Francisco! All hail the yeasts!"
As you can see, Kotis likes exclamation points! Indeed, much of the show's book seems to have been written with the fervent enthusiasm of a group of extremely precocious high school theatre geeks who are extremely proud of their newfound grasp of symbolism (Kotis conceived the musical almost 20 years ago as “a contrarian, environmentalist anti-musical that would tell the tale of the first musicalizable moment in all of time”).

Kevin Singer as Jan-the-Second Oldest and Courtney Merrell as
Jan-the-Sweet in Yeast Nation (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

In some ways, the plot of Yeast Nation is a hefty mashup of father-son conflicts as old as Pippin and The Parable of The Prodigal Son. In this case, however, the three sons of Jan-the-Elder (Danny Cozart) are Jan-the-Wretched (Roy Eikleberry), Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Kevin Singer), and Jan-the-Youngest (David Glazer). Female yeasts range from the oracle-like Jan-the-Unnamed (Heather Orth) and evil Jan-the-Sly (Teresa Attridge) to Jan-the-Sweet (Courtney Merrell) and Jan-the-Famished (Juliana Lustenader). The only non-yeast female role is for The New One (Mary Kalita), who was created when Jan-the-Second-Oldest swam up close to the ocean's surface and feasted on the muck, which could easily become a new life form.

Mary Kalita as The New One in Yeast Nation
(Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

As the company's artistic director, Jason Hoover, notes:
"Yeast Nation takes place billions of years ago but presents all-too-familiar issues: dwindling resources, strict dogma, and fear of the unknown. Though the characters are prehistoric yeasts, their aspirations, feelings, and challenges echo ours (the creatures yet to come). This primordial musical couldn't be more relevant."
Teresa Attridge as Jan-the-Sly) in Yeast Nation
(Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Strong performances came from Heather Orth, Roy Eikleberry, Kevin Singer, and Courtney Merrell. Huge props go to lighting designer Joe D’Emilio, sound designer Anton Hedman, and set designer Angrette McCloskey. In all honesty, I found Mark Hollman's energetic score to be excruciatingly dull and often had problems hearing Kotis's lyrics clearly.

If Hoover is looking for provocative works to produce in the future, I heartily recommend Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's sendup of a world driven by tabloid media, Where's Dick? I attended the world premiere (performed outdoors by Texas Opera Theatre in May 1989) and think it is a match made in heaven for Ray of Light Theatre.

Among the cast of characters are the sadistic Ma Paddle (who runs an orphanage), Mrs. Heimlich (who has a wooden son), Baby Snowflake (an albino gorilla who lusts after virgin flesh), a pederastic Santa Claus, a midget real estate developer named Stump Tower, a husband-and-wife team of televangelists who like to saw people's bodies in half and switch the bottom halves, a countertenor named Boldface Headlines, and a law enforcement officer named Police Chief Blowhard.

Who could ask for anything more?