Sunday, May 10, 2015

Keeping Up Appearances

When one thinks back on some of history's greatest hoaxes, the first two that come to mind are usually the Trojan Horse and the creation of Potemkin villages.  Both were brilliant projects conceived and executed on a grand scale with formidable results.

If we ratchet down the scale of deception to a much more intimate level, we end up examining the behavior of a very duplicitious character who has become so skilled at living a lie that it may be impossible for him to remember who he really is. For many of us, the perfect example would be a gay man who insists on living a closeted and severely compartmentalized life.

Maintaining such an exhausting charade can only last for so long. Recently, Bay area theatregoers were treated to two hilarious examples of what can go wrong when someone tries too hard to be someone he's not.

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Over at Thick House, Best of Playground Festival 19 presented six of the best short plays created during Playground's 2014-2015 season. Written by Davern Wright and directed by Jim Kleinmann, Cratchit examines what might happen if Ebeneezer Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Present didn't follow the path originally conceived  by Charles Dickens.

Instead, Wright posits that, knowing what a tightass Scrooge is about money, the Cratchit family must desperately try to pull off an elaborate ruse in order to con the old man into feeling some pity for them. Tim (Millie DeBenedete) is no cripple, but a healthy young grifter who has practiced every pose that can milk money out of a stranger's pockets.

Cratchit's two daughters, Emily (Stephanie Prentice) and Belinda (Melissa Ortiz), are two simpering teenage brats reluctant to share any credit for their role in preparing the family's Christmas dinner. Their father, Bob Cratchit (Michael Barrett Austin), is a frustrated, foul-mouthed Victorian-era clerk who couldn't stop cursing out his selfish employer.

As a result, when The Ghost of Christmas Present (Jomar Tagatac) guides Scrooge (Michael Phillis) to observe the misery in the Cratchit household caused by his stinginess, what Scrooge witnesses is quite different from what Dickens wrote.

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Phillis) visits his clerk's schemiong
family on Christmas Day in Cratchit (Photo by: 

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To close out its 2014-2015 season, 42nd Street Moon is presenting a rare revival of Frank Loesser and George Abbott's hit, Where's Charley? Directed with gusto by Dyan McBride, this musical adaptation of Brandon Thomas's 1892 hit comedy, Charley's Aunt, was a star vehicle for Ray Bolger, whose career as a song-and-dance man included the original Broadway productions of Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) and two hit musicals by Rodgers and Hart: On Your Toes (1936), and By Jupiter (1942). Although Bolger may be best known for his performance as The Scarecrow in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, this clip from 1941's hit film, Sunny, gives a good sense of his loose-limbed charm.

When Where's Charley? opened on Broadway in 1948 at the St. James Theatre, it ran for 792 performances. A revival featuring most of the original leads opened in January 1951 at the Broadway Theatre and ran for 48 performances. A 1952 film version produced by Warner Brothers gives a hint at Bolger's charm in the title role and includes the sing-along to "Once In Love With Amy" that he made popular during the show's original run on Broadway.

For those who don't know, the ruse that lies at the core of Charley's Aunt and Where's Charley? is the predicament that Charley Wykeham finds himself in when he and his roommate, Jack Chesney, are visited by their girfriends (who arrive without a chaperone). This being Victorian England, such behavior is outrageous. In order to facilitate matters, Charley is convinced to dress up as his aunt, Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez, who is due to arrive in town while visiting from Brazil ("where the nuts come from").

Keith Pinto in drag as Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez in
Where's Charley? (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)

Once the gimmick is established, the actor playing Charley is kept on the run as he undergoes quick costume changes between his naturally masculine appearance as Charley and a highly feminized version of his aunt. Needless to say, "Charley's Aunt" (who is rumored to be extremely wealthy) attracts the attention of several gold-digging old goats, including Jack Chesney's financially challenged father. Meanwhile, Charley finds himself suddenly gaining access to such forbidden areas as a ladies' dressing room.

Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez (Keith Pinto) finds himself in a ladies'
dressing room in Where's Charley?  (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)

Some may claim that Frank Loesser's score for Where's Charley? is rather slight, but I don't think that's very fair. In many respects, George Abbott's book and Loesser's songs show a heavy influence of Gilbert & Sullivan.

This show is very much a period piece (as opposed to other Loesser musicals such as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, Greenwillow, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  The following selections from 1958's London cast recording (starring Norman Wisdom) give listeners a taste of the romantic style Loesser drew upon for his score to Where's Charley?

42nd Street Moon's revival featured James Bock as Jack Chesney, John-Elliott Kirk as Sir Francis Chesney, and Scott Hayes, who landed many fine comedic moments as Mr. Spettigue. Jennifer Mitchell and Abby Sammons lent their rich soprano voices to the roles of Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue, with Stephanie Rhoads appearing as Charley's real aunt Dona Lucia.

As a rule, the show rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Charley Wykeham. Keith Pinto brought a high energy, athletic determination to the role which paid off in spades. On opening night, it looked as if Pinto was having as much fun as the audience was having watching him in action.

Keith Pinto as Dona Lucia D'Alvadorez fends off Scott Hayes as
Mr. Spettigue in Where's Charley? (Photo by: Patrick O'Connor)

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