Monday, December 7, 2015

They Clawed Their Way To The Top

The Tony Award for Best Musical is more than a harbinger of box office gold. It can also bless a show with a rare aura of social relevance. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that nearly 25% of the shows that received the Tony Award for Best Musical during the past 65 years were based on contemporary situations that the general public could relate to. They include:

The curious thing about musicals that began their lives as reflections of contemporary society is how easily the passage of time can transform some of them into period pieces.
  • When South Pacific won its Tony Award for Best Musical, only four years had elapsed since the end of World War II. War was still very fresh in the public's mind; interracial romances were still taboo. Today they are not.
  • When The Pajama Game won its Tony Award for Best Musical, labor unions were a source of strength and pride in the American workplace. Now they are not.
  • When Bye Bye Birdie won its Tony Award for Best Musical, teenagers who hogged the telephone for hours were a common household problem. Today, they're much busier texting and sexting.
  • When How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying won its Tony Award for Best Musical (as well as the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), the business community it mocked was as sexist as the situations depicted in Mad Men.
Mary Kalita as Hedy LaRue in the BAM! production of
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

I'm always fascinated by how the serendipity of events on my calendar can provide me with a theme for a blog post. I recently attended back-to-back performances of two highly acclaimed musicals which were obviously period pieces. One, set in the Edwardian era, takes place in 1909. The other was How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying which, due to changes in society and technology, is now very much a period piece.

The logo for the original Broadway production of
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Based on Shepherd Mead's 1952 book, How to Succeed is a whip-smart business-savvy show with a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (as well as music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) that treads a fine line between a cartoonish kind of optimism (combined with the luck of a newbie) and biting social commentary on the sycophancy, greed, Machiavellian duplicity, and abject stupidity that often dominate corporate culture. In the 55 years since its Broadway premiere, office life has undergone startling changes.
  • Early diet foods such as Metrecal have been replaced by newer and infinitely more popular brands.
  • The Stouffer Food Corporation and Stouffer Restaurant Corporation were sold to Nestlé (Stouffer's frozen foods and its other popular brand, Lean Cuisine, are now sold in supermarkets). Its restaurants no longer exist.
  • Although invented in 1886, mimeograph machines gave way to newer printing technologies during the 1960s (followed by fax machines and email). They are no longer a staple of office life.
  • The evolution of phone technology from a PBX-based system to today's smartphones has had a huge impact on business communications.
  • Few executives today would hire a secretary based on her skills as a stenographer.
  • The sexism and racism that were rampant in many offices have undergone tectonic changes as a result of the civil rights movement, LGBT rights movement, and women's rights movement.
Poster art for the 1995 Broadway revival of
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

The good news is that there's a new theatre company in San Francisco devoted to musical theatre. However, despite the best of intentions, it got off to a rocky start with its first production. Bay Area Musicals! made its debut at the Marines Memorial Theatre with a new production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In his program note, Matthew McCoy (the company's founder and artistic director) wrote:
"We founded BAM! on three pillars of commitment: to exemplify Bay area diversity in season selections, casting, and professional development; to produce professional productions at accessible ticket rates, and to engage the community through performance, outreach, and educational opportunities. I hope you walk away feeling a tingle from experiencing an outstanding evening of theater that pushes important social questions and inspires new thinking -- within yourself and our community."
Poster art for the Bay Area Musicals! production of
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

On a hunch, I waited until the second press night to attend (when the cast would have had three performances under their belts). By the time the curtain calls were finished, I was tingling all right -- but not in the way Mr. McCoy intended.
  • There are high school bands that could play Loesser's music better (and more accurately) than the pathetic ensemble performing under the musical direction of Jon Gallo.
  • I'm still struggling to find the correct words to describe AeJay Mitchell's choreography: at the moment it's a toss-up between "embarrassing," "execrable," "misguided," and "inane."
  • Although the company's aim to achieve diversity in casting is admirably reflected by the number of African-American and Asian-American actors onstage, it boggles the mind that in a story about a young whippersnapper whose meteoric rise threatens the status quo and the security of senior corporate executives, McCoy chose not to include any age-appropriate actors. What this means is that Mr. Twimble (the man who has been working in the mail room for 25 years) and Mr. Womper (the Chairman of the Board) -- who are both played by the same actor -- looked as if they might only be five years older than J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Kyle Stoner). This is the kind of casting diversity (with a definitely biased blind spot regarding ageism) that reeks of Millennial myopia.
  • In the show's hit musical number, "I Believe In You," a musical joke in which the orchestra mimics the sound of electric shavers with kazoos has been scrapped -- as has Loesser's impressive overture.
  • In an era when profanity is now commonplace in the business world, Hedy LaRue's hilarious and once-shocking first word ("Screw") has been changed to "Scram," which completely deflates the joke.
Kirk Johnson (J.B. Biggley), Kyle Stoner (J. Pierrepont Finch),
and Brendon North (Bud Frump) star in How to Succeed
in Business Without Really Trying
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Giving credit where credit is due, Brian Watson's unit set was enhanced by Pasquale Spezzano's costumes. Chloe Condon was appealingly frustrated as the husband-hungry Rosemary Pilkington, with Nicole Frydman providing emotional support as Smitty. As Miss Jones (the executive secretary of World Wide Wickets), Nikki Arias provided a nice foil to Mary Kalita's portrayal of the boss's mistress, Hedy LaRue.

Chloe Condon as Rosemary Pilkington in BAM!'s production of
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

In any production of How to Succeed, the actor portraying J. Pierrepont Finch can usually rely on a certain kind of boyish appeal to have the audience eating out of his hand. Kyle Stoner did an admirable job climbing the corporate ladder one fortuitous step after another. Kirk Johnson was full of impotent bluster as J.B. Biggley, with Michael Cabanlit doubling as Mr. Twimble and Mr. Womper. Others in the cast included Matt Ono as Mr. Bratt, Benjamin Nguyen as Mr. Gatch, Brendon North as Bud Frump, and Justin Lucas as Mr. Ovonton.

The office staff of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

However, as Meredith Willson warned in 1957's The Music Man, "You gotta know the territory!" In addition to the touring road shows presented by SHN, the Bay area boasts five community theatre companies devoted to musical comedy (Ray of Light Theatre, 42nd Street Moon, Broadway by the Bay, Berkeley Playhouse, and Woodminster Summer Musicals) that do excellent work and have [collectively] spent 140 years building loyal audiences. If Mr. McCoy wants some tips on how to succeed in musical theatre in the Bay area, he would be well advised to start with hiring a better stage director, better choreographer, and much better musicians.

* * * * * * * * *
When How to Succeed won its Tony Award for Best Musical (the show received a total of eight Tony Awards), its competition was Carnival! (music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), Milk and Honey (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), and No Strings (music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers). When A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical, its competition was After Midnight (music by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, and Jimmy McHugh), Aladdin (music by Alan Menken), and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (music mostly by Carole King). Even if it only took home four Tony Awards, AGGLM is such a brilliant theatrical achievement that one could easily imagine it having been crafted by pooling the theatrical genius of Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Sondheim, and Charles Ludlam (whose collective artistic fingerprints are all over the piece).

Set in London in 1909, AGGLM boasts a deliciously droll book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman with music and additional lyrics by Steven Lutvak. A co-production between the Hartford Stage and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, AGGLM offers audiences a smart, sassy, and screamingly funny evening of musical comedy bedecked in period costumes designed (with one hilarious sight gag) by Linda Cho and with orchestrations by the great Jonathan Tunick.

Lesley McKinnell (Miss Barley), Kevin Massey (Monty Navarro) and
John Rapson (Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr.) in a scene from
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Under the inspired and meticulous stage direction of Darko Tresnjak -- and played out on Alexander Dodge's intricately-rigged unit set (the kind of stage architecture that brings puzzle fans close to orgasm) -- AGGLM is a class act from start to finish. With such a wealth of theatrical riches appearing on one stage rigged for surprises, Peggy Hickey's delightful choreography serves as the cherry atop a very sweetly iced and elaborately decorated layer cake of comedic delights.

When AGGLM's national tour dropped anchor at the Golden Gate Theatre for the holiday season, itwas met with a deservedly rapturous response from an audience thrilled to encounter an intelligent Broadway musical executed with the precision of a Swiss watch. Unlike many of the touring shows that have been booked into the Orpheum Theatre, the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier for AGGLM was so well-balanced and superbly realized that nearly ever word could be heard with crystal clarity.

Kevin Massey (Monty Navarro) and Mary VanArsdel (Miss Shingle)
in a scene from A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Based on Roy Horniman's 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (which was also the source for the beloved 1949 British film, Kind Hearts and Coronets), AGGLM is a dandy (and often quite daffy) period piece which provides a skilled actor with the opportunity to portray nine members of the same family in a hilarious tour de force while another portrays the handsome young man determined to kill them all in order to inherit the family fortune.

Among the more riotous scenes are Monty Navarro's attempt to kill someone who is ice skating in a winter wonderland, an ode to a more perverse "Brotherhood of Man," and a deathly dinner party in which Monty's plans go awry. Lutvak's mischievous score includes such delightful musical numbers as "Poison In My Pocket," "Better With A Man," "Lady Hyacinth Abroad," "That Horrible Woman," and "I Don't Understand The Poor."

The women in AGGLM are primarily supporting characters in Monty's escapades, with Mary VanArsdel as Miss Shingle, Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Lesley McKinnell as Miss Barley, Kristen Mengelkoch as Lady Eugenia, and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D'Ysquith. The evening remains squarely focused on Kevin Massey's devilishly appealing portrayal of the social-climbing Monty Navarro and John Rapson's delirious appearances as (in no particular order):
  • Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, Sr.
  • Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr.
  • Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith.
  • Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith.
  • Henry D'Ysquith.
  • Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith.
  • Major Lord Bartholomew D'Ysquith.
  • Lady Salome D'Ysquith Pumphrey, and 
  • Chauncey D'Ysquith.
John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith in a scene from
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (Photo by: Joan Marcus)
Shows demanding multiple quick character and costume changes for a key performer (Greater Tuna, The Mystery of Irma Vep) are usually staged on a fairly intimate scale. I can't think of another musical since Sid Caesar starred in 1962's Little Me that has kept an audience roaring with laughter at the ingenuity and craft of its leading man.

Performances of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder continue through December 27 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here to order tickets). This may well be the most delightful gift anyone could give themselves to relieve the gloom of our current world situation.

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