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.

* * * * * * * * *
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: 

* * * * * * * * *
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?

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