Wednesday, April 6, 2016

They Coulda Been Contenders

Today, more than ever before, people are being encouraged to pursue their artistic dreams. With a wealth of digital tools at their fingertips, it has become infinitely easier to self-publish one's writing, voice one's opinions in the blogosphere, become a YouTube personality who earns income from advertising, or even audition via Skype.

While many must cling to their day jobs for financial security, others resolutely concentrate on their creativity and prioritize whatever form of self expression drives their ambition. Some enter reality television talent competitions; others work with business incubator programs to bring their ideas to market.
But what about those who genuinely lack talent? Some choose to live out their ambitions through their children; others find ways to enable talented artists to further their careers. While audiences tend to seek out superstars, they are quick to ignore the person in the background whose ardor for music, painting, writing, or dance eclipses the possibility that they could ever be known for their talent in an art form they love.
  • Societal taboos often keep some people from fulfilling their artistic dreams. 
  • In severely repressive cultures, it may be illegal for a woman to dance, sing, act, or play a musical instrument in public.
  • Some cultures enforce strict gender roles that require a woman to stay home, raise a family, and let her husband take the credit for his wife's ideas.
  • Some women discover that, although they willingly devoted years of their lives to taking care of their children, once faced with an empty nest they no longer have the ambition or skill necessary to pursue their artistic goals.
Two recent productions focused on women who failed to toe the patriarchal line, thus causing their husbands grave embarrassment by trying to live out their dreams through their children or risking the destruction of their marriages. Both stories take place nearly a century ago, when the mere idea of women being carefree individuals free to explore and develop their talent might have been scorned as sheer lunacy. Thankfully, things have changed for the better.

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First produced by the York Theatre in November 2004, Souvenir moved to Broadway the following year with Judy Kaye recreating her acclaimed portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. Later this year, an American film adaptation of the story starring Meryl Streep as Mme. Foster Jenkins will be released in theatres.

In what can truly be described as an embarrassment of riches, a French film written and directed by Xavier Giannoli (with Marcia Romano as co-author) has been released ahead of the Streep vehicle. Played less for comedy than for pathos, Marguerite deftly captures the infatuation and delusional behavior of a rich woman who, though besotted with art, has no talent.

Catherine Frot stars in Marguerite

The film begins near Marguerite Dumont's castle outside of Paris, where music lovers gather every year to raise money for a good cause in a social environment. When a nervous Marguerite (Catherine Frot) appears to sing the Queen of the Night's aria ("Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen") from Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, most of the guests stifle their laughter out of respect for a woman who has been so generous with her wealth.

Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his friend Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy) are
fascinated with Marguerite's singing in a scene from Marguerite

Among those who take Marguerite seriously, however, are:
  • Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), a young journalist who is eager to write about Marguerite Dumont.
  • Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy), Lucien's friend who is a pretentious dilettante.
  • Hazel (Christa Theret), a young soprano who has been hired to sing for the guests during Marguerite's event.
  • Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), Marguerite's overprotective African servant and accompanist.
Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) accompanies his employer
(Catherine Frot) in a scene from Marguerite

It's easy to accept Marguerite's wide-eyed naiveté when one considers that she married her husband, Georges (André Marcon), for his title and he didn't hesitate to marry her for her wealth. As a result, most of their social circle consists of his business associates and their wives. Whenever Marguerite aims to sing in public, Georges's car mysteriously breaks down, forcing him to miss her moment of musical glory.

To no one's surprise, a woman who has lived within such a bubble of wealth easily succumbs to flattery. When Lucien and Kyrill take her out on a nighttime romp through Paris, the trio end up at an operatic performance starring a bloated, fading tenor whose post-performance attention goes straight to Marguerite's head.

Atos Pezzini (Michael Fau) is an aging operatic tenor who
attempts to coach the talentless protagonist of Marguerite

Easily convinced that she needs coaching if she is going to sing a public recital, she agrees to let the overbearing Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau) become her musical mentor. With the help of his friends -- Sophia Leboutte as the bearded lady (Félicité La Barbue) who eventually agrees to marry Marguerite's servant, Madelbos, and Théo Cholbi as Pezzini's toy boy, Diego, the tenor tries to whip the tone-deaf Marguerite into musical shape.

Catherine Frot stars in Marguerite

As one might expect, the financially-strapped Pezzini sees Marguerite as a heaven-sent meal ticket. To her credit, Marguerite, is happy to help finance her friends. And thus, a story in which enabling forces run in both directions leads to a shocking turn of events during the deluded Countess's public debut. While the crisis may bring back her husband's love, a physician's misguided advice ensures that Marguerite will never sing again. Here's the trailer:

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Marguerite's lifestyle rests on a foundation of financial security, a resplendent mansion, doting servants, and an indulgent husband who allows her to be a dilettante. By contrast, Rose Hovick has no financial security and a burning passion to see her eldest daughter become a vaudeville star. While the title of Gypsy: A Musical Fable refers to Gypsy Rose Lee (the awkward introvert turned world-famous ecdysiast), the driving force in the legendary musical created by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim is that most monstrous of all stage mothers, Mama Rose.

Lynda DiVito as Mama Rose in Gypsy: A Musical Fable

Contra Costa Music Theatre recently presented Gypsy at the Lesher Center for the Arts in a production directed and choreographed by Jennifer Perry. It's hard to believe that this musical (which premiered on May 21, 1959 as a vehicle for Ethel Merman) is now 57 years old.

Gypsy tells the story of a woman with minimal talent who is so intoxicated by the rush of show business that she will do anything in order to make sure her daughters keep performing. Whether stealing a gold plaque honoring her father's long years of employment -- or the dining utensils from a Chinese restaurant -- Rose was stalking vaudeville's impresarios long before the concept of a "tiger mother" gained popularity in Asian American families. Keenly aware of her own limitations ("I was born too soon and started too late -- if I coulda been, I woulda been"), she refuses to take "no" for an answer.

Lynda DiVito (Mama Rose) and Michael Patrick Gaffney
(Herbie) in a scene from Gypsy: A Musical Fable

No matter how many revivals and regional productions Gypsy has received, the show still packs an emotional wallop as it gains dramatic momentum with the power of a runaway freight train. Jule Styne's memorable score (which includes such classics as "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Together, Wherever We Go," "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" and "Rose's Turn") remains incredibly fresh.

Certain musicals (Gypsy, Follies, She Loves Me) have developed a cult following, and rightly so. Gypsy is so magnificently crafted that any chance to see it performed onstage demands attention. My main reason for checking out CCMT's production was to see Lynda DiVito's take on Mama Rose. DiVito (who has appeared in numerous East Bay productions) has always impressed me as a solid actress with a powerful belt in her voice.

Jarusha Ariel (Louise), Lynda DiVito (Rose), and Michael Patrick
Gaffney (Herbie) in a scene from CCMT's production of Gypsy

Although her portrayal of Rose was a little sweeter and less frantic than some others, DiVito had no problem nailing Jule Styne's songs to the back wall of the 785-seat Hofmann Theatre. Her Rose received strong support from Michael Patrick Gaffney's Herbie, Katie Bartemeo's June, and Jason Rehklau's Tulsa. As the three strippers, Ali Lane shone as Tessie Tura with Amanda Maxwell sassily strutting her stuff as Mazeppa and Diella Wottrich acting appropriately ditsy as Electra.

Under Kevin Roland's musical direction, the opening night performance of CCMT's Gypsy suffered several glitches in the orchestra pit. The real challenge, however, was the rare case of a key actor coping with a sudden setback. Because the woman playing the adult Louise (Jarusha Ariel) had apparently run into some vocal difficulties during rehearsals, a decision was made to have someone else "voice" the role while Ms. Ariel performed onstage. The substitution worked exceptionally well and Ariel got through the evening like a pro.

Jerusha Ariel as Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy: A Musical Fable

In the late 1970s, I experienced something similar while attending the Seattle Opera's production of the RING cycle. This was prior to the advent of Supertitles, when the Seattle Opera staged Richard Wagner's 19-hour tetralogy one week with the original German text and the following week using Andrew Porter's acclaimed English translation.

At the performance of Die Walkure during the English cycle, it was announced that the tenor singing the role of Siegmund had lost his voice after going for a swim. Because the tenor who had sung Siegmund during the German cycle was still in town, he was able to "voice" the role from the orchestra pit while the tenor originally scheduled to sing Siegmund in the English cycle "acted" the role onstage. The end result? The tenor from the German cycle sang the role in German while everyone else onstage performed Die Walkure in English!

Lynda DiVito (Mama Rose) and Jerusha Ariel
(Louise) in a scene from Gypsy: A Musical Fable

Special mention should be made of the flexible set designed by Kelly James Tighe and the excellent sound design by Some More Sound. Performances of Gypsy continue at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through May 1 (click here to order tickets).

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