Monday, May 25, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part

Many people fret about what will happen to them after they die. Will they find themselves rejoicing in heaven, repenting in hell, or will their body simply decompose? Will their ashes rest atop someone's mantle, be scattered at sea, be compressed into a diamond, or shaped into a flowerpot that can nurture new growth?

So many choices, with only one chance to get it right. Of course, depending on how superstitious a person might be, there is always the possibility of reincarnation or returning to haunt someone (or some place) as a meddling ghost.

In 1937, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett starred in Topper, the film adaptation of Thorne Smith's 1926 novel, The Jovial Ghosts. The plot revolved around Cosmo Topper, a wealthy, dull bank president who finds himself constantly being tormented by the ghosts of two of his clients: a rich married couple who died in an automobile accident.

After the initial success of 1937's Topper, two sequels were filmed followed by a television series that starred Leo G. Carroll, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, and a big, drooling St. Bernard. Several episodes of the popular 1950s series were written by a young Stephen Sondheim.

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Alas, not all ghosts are as friendly and fun-loving as George and Marion Kirby. Cinema is filled with malevolent characters ranging from screaming banshees and shapeshifters to Satanic influences.

In 1988, Winona Ryder starred in a black comedy set in a hugely dysfunctional high school in the fictional town of Westerburg, Ohio. When I first saw Heathers, I was accompanied by my father (a retired high school teacher). Neither of us could relate to the scenes of slut shaming, bitchy female cliques, murderous, gun-crazed teenagers, anorexia, or the ghosts of cheerleaders gone wrong.

Not only did Heathers develop a cult following, in 2010 it provided the source material for Heathers: The Musical (with book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy).  San Francisco's consistently adventurous Ray of Light Theatre recently presented the show's West Coast premiere in a highly energetic production directed by Eric Scanlon and choreographed by Alex Rodriguez with Ben Prince serving as musical director.

Lizzie Moss, Jocelyn Pickett, and  Samantha Rose Cardenas 
appear in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon

Despite the rapturous audience response from shrieking high school students and screaming Heathers fans, ROLT's production suffered from one major flaw: Anton Hedman's severely over-amplified sound design. This became most apparent during musical numbers, when the sound distortion made it almost impossible for people to understand even 40% of the lyrics.

Let me be blunt: A show's lyricist writes lyrics that he expects to be heard. Audiences have a reasonable expectation of being able to understand a show's lyrics. While there was a slight lessening of the amplification during Act II of the opening night performance, there was still plenty of sound distortion undermining the performance.

My advice to Hedman would be to ratchet down the amplification by at least 30% so that his singers can have greater impact and provide a much more satisfying experience to ROLT's audience. As the following clips demonstrate, the lyrics to the songs in Heathers: The Musical are fucking hilarious and definitely deserve to be heard and thoroughly understood!

With costumes by Katie Dowse and scenic design by Angrette McCloskey, ROLT's production starred Jessica Quarles as Veronica Sawyer, the odd girl out who gets befriended by the school's triumvirate of mean girls: Heather Chandler (Jocelyn Pickett), Heather McNamara (Lizzie Moss), and Heather Duke (Samantha Rose Cardenas), a teen anorexic who spends a lot of time throwing up (and, in a superb bit of casting, bears a striking resemblance to Kim Kardashian).

Laura Arthur appears as Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock
in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Veronica's best friend since kindergarten, Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock (nicely portrayed by Laura Arthur). is the constant victim of scorn from the three Heathers and all who worship them, including top jocks Kurt Kelly (Paul Hovannes) and Ram Sweeney (Nick Quintell).

Paul Hovannes and Nick Quintell appear as two clueless
jocks in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Veronica's traumatic experiences at Westerburg High take a sudden and very dark turn with the arrival of Jason Dean (Jordon Bridges), the emotionally damaged son of a demolitions expert who has suffered severe abandonment issues ever since his mother intentionally walked into one of the buildings his father planned to demolish five minutes before the explosives were detonated.

With an audience that seemed to have memorized every moment in the movie, beloved lines like "Fuck me gently with a chain saw" were met with screaming approval from the enthusiastic crowd on opening night. Credit is also due to three supporting players who took on multiple roles:
  • Jessica Fisher appeared as Veronica's mother as well as the school guidance counselor, Ms. Flemming;
  • Mischa Stephens appeared as Coach Ripper, Bib Bud, and Ram Sweeney's father;
  • Andy Rotchadl appeared as Veronica's father, Kurt Kelly's dad, and Principal Gowan.
Jessica Quarles (Victoria Sawyer) and Jordon Bridges (Jason Dean)
star in Heathers: The Musical (Photo by: Erik Scanlon) 

Strongly cast and performed with great enthusiasm, Heathers: The Musical is a natural fit for ROLT"s audience. With better sound design, it could be a much more satisfying experience. Performances continue through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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As long as we're talking about what happens to people after they die, mention should be made of Columbarium, a touching documentary short by Tyler Trumbo which will be shown during the 14th San Francisco Documentary Festival (DocFest). Shot on Super 16mm film, Trumbo's four-minute long black-and-white documentary explores the concept of death and remembrance through the eyes of Emmitt Watson, the long-time caretaker of nearly 80,000 cremated remains ensconced in the Neptune Society's beautiful Columbarium located in San Francisco's Richmond District.

Emmitt Watson at work in the Neptune Society's Columbarium

Trumbo's film is an extremely poignant short which may have deeper meaning for viewers who are single than those who belong to more traditional extended families. Short and sweet, Columbarium shows how (for some people) the memory of who they once were can be preserved along with their ashes. Here's the teaser:

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