Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Use Your Imagination

For centuries, royal courts and places of worship were the primary economic forces commissioning works of art and sporting the latest fashions. However, as The Movie Palaces (a 1987 documentary narrated by Gene Kelly that was produced by the Smithsonian Institution in association with the Theatre Historical Society of America) demonstrates, it was the birth of the film industry that, through a new art form, led to the democratization of architecture and fashion. The following 27-minute clip is well worth your time to get a better historical grasp on how this trend developed. It also allows viewers to examine the insides of some of America's greatest movie palaces from a bygone era.

One of the more colorful documentaries being screened during the 2016 Frameline Film Festival covers a lot of ground by exploring the life of Orry-Kelly, a native of Kiama, Australia who grew up to become the famous Hollywood costume designer who won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design three times (for his work on 1951's An American in Paris, 1957's Les Girls, and 1959's Some Like It Hot).

Orry-Kelly fitting one of Marilyn Monroe's
costumes for 1959's Some Like It Hot

Gillian Armstrong's documentary, Women He's Undressed, describes how Kelly (who was born in 1897), left his small town to seek fame and fortune in New York. His early career included a brief stint as a chorus boy with a talent for dropping the female dancers he was supposed to be lifting.

While in New York, Kelly met and fell in love with a young Irish immigrant named Archibald MacLeish (who later became famous as Cary Grant). Kelly worked as a set painter and costume designer while MacLeish went on auditions and worked as an escort. Unknown and barely making enough to survive on, they lived an openly gay lifestyle and were very much in love.

Things changed when they moved to Hollywood in the 1930s. Soon after he started getting work as a film actor and changed his name, Cary Grant (who was then living with Randolph Scott) ditched Kelly and went back into the closet -- marrying three different women in an effort to keep his bisexuality hidden. Kelly kept moving up the ladder and eventually became the head costume designer for Warner Brothers. During World War II, his newspaper column ("Hollywood Fashion Parade") was published by William Randolph Hearst's powerful International News Service.

Orry-Kelly dressing Ava Gardner for 1948's movie musical
One Touch of Venus (Photo: Universal Pictures/Photofest)

Kelly had an uncanny ability to design costumes for Hollywood's female stars that would mask any problems with their bodies. In the 32 years he designed films for Hollywood's major studios, he worked on nearly 300 films ranging from Busby Berkeley's movie musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937, Stage Struck, Hollywood Hotel) to On Your Toes, The Dolly Sisters, One Touch of Venus, Oklahoma! Wonderful Town, and Gypsy.

Among the famous films he worked on are The Petrified Forest, Kid Galahad, Jezebel, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, Casablanca, Now, Voyager and Auntie Mame. From Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Kate Hepburn to Dolores del Rio, Olivia de Havilland, and Ava Gardner, his work was innovative, imaginative, and often copied by dress manufacturers. One of the few people in Hollywood who stand and would stamd up to Jack Warner, his circle of friends included Rosalind Russell, Ann Warner, and George Cukor.

Cover art for Orry-Kelly's book, Women I've Undressed

Among the documentary's numerous talking heads are Jack Warner's daughter (Barbara Warner Howard), costume historian Larry McQueen, film critic Leonard Maltin, authors Martin Sherman and David Chierichetti, and actresses Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury. A bevy of costume designers from Catherine Martin and Michael Wilkinson to Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Colleen Atwood offer concise professional insights into the details that made Kelly's work so impressive. The legendary Ann Roth describes Kelly's great wit and personality, relating how one night, when a policeman handcuffed the drunken costume designer for jaywalking, Kelly asked the officer "How fast was I going?"

Orry-Kelly at the Academy Awards

Women He's Undressed switches back and forth between three tracks: The story of how Orry-Kelly managed to lead an openly gay lifestyle in an extremely homophobic industry, a cavalcade of the costumes he designed (with detailed analysis by other costume designers), and numerous fanciful narrative sequences in which Darren Gilshenan appears as Orry-Kelly and Deborah Kennedy portrays his mother, Florence Kelly.

Louis Alexander as young Orry-Kelly in one of the
fantasy sequences from Women He's Undressed

There's plenty of material in Women He's Undressed to satisfy movie buffs, fashion fans, and those hungry for Hollywood gossip (hat tip to Scotty Bowers). Here's the trailer:

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A tremendous amount of imagination went into the design and execution of the blueprints for America's movie palaces and the sketches for Orry-Kelly's costumes. But sometimes imagination is used in pursuit of more ephemeral results. As Eric Ting, the new Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater explains:
“There are reasons Shakespeare’s work has so often been the vehicle by which artists have sought to change the way we see things. Perhaps it’s the perception that his stories hold universal truths, pathways towards empathy; perhaps it’s the four centuries of tradition that we push against and in that pressure, forge something new. Perhaps it’s that undefinable alchemy that happens when an audience suspends disbelief, gives over, says YES --  that moment when anything is possible. The poor become rich, the broken-hearted healed, man becomes woman, and woman becomes man.”
Erik Flatmo's unit set for Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

To open its 2016 summer season, CalShakes invited director Jackson Gay to stage the adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing that she crafted with Kenneth Lin (who wrote additional text to set up the action). Working on an attractive unit set designed by Erik Flatmo, they have found a simple yet remarkably effective device that allows them to cast Shakespeare's comedy in nontraditional methods.

As the audience enters the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, they see a large gate leading to an estate's garden. There are a series of chairs upstage and a catering truck with its back open for loading. Most of the cast initially appears as cater-waiters cleaning up after a festive event. The evening's entertainer (Patrick Alparone) is still waiting to be paid by the event's hostess. As the staff replaces plates and glasses into their cardboard cartons, they are forced to hang around until they are free to go home.

While they wait, they might as well amuse themselves. Thus, the catering supervisor (Anthony Fusco) assigns the roles from Much Ado About Nothing to his wait staff, knowing them well enough to match their personalities to specific characters. The easiest choices are two members of his team who are constantly bickering and trading insults. To make matters more interesting, he casts the man (James Carpenter) as a woman (Beatrice) and the woman (Stacy Ross) as a man (Benedick).

The cast of Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Many in the CalShakes audience are keenly aware that these are two of the most versatile actors in the Bay area. Not only is casting them in gender-crossed roles bound to spark friction between their characters, it allows Carpenter and Ross to demonstrate their dramatic chops in a whole new way. As Ting explains:
“Who amongst us has not yearned to be something we are not? Braver, prettier, smarter, younger, older, faster, slower, richer, wiser, a woman, a man. The theater affords us (in those moments between the curtain's rise and fall) the power to transform ourselves. to imagine ourselves as something more. When Beatrice exhorts 'O that I were a man,' she yearns to be seen as a man for the respect and rights afforded the men that surround her. Theater, especially the works of William Shakespeare, have time and time again empowered us to see -- and be seen -- differently.”
Stacy Ross as Benedick in a scene from Shakespeare's
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
“In the 1950s, when many theaters were still segregated, we turned to nontraditional casting to transform how audiences saw. Consider James Earl Jones as King Lear, or the many times women have sought to break the glass ceiling, including the more than 200 actresses who have portrayed Hamlet.”
James Carpenter as Beatrice in a scene from Shakespeare's
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

First published in 1623, Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's rowdiest comedies. This production marked the company debuts of two wonderful actresses (Denmo Ibrahim and Safiya Fredericks) who have been working steadily on Bay area stages. When placed in the company of such CalShakes veterans as Patrick Alparone (as Don John, Balthasar, and a watchman), Rami Margron (as Margaret, Borachio, and a Friar), and Anthony Fusco (doubling as Leonato and a riotously inarticulate Dogberry), these two women were a welcome addition to the company. Fredericks appeared as Hero (a female) and Ibrahim as Hero's beloved, Claudio (a man). A special shoutout goes to Lance Gardner, who doubled as a somewhat serious Don Pedro and a delightfully ditsy Ursula.

Any purists who might have begun the evening harboring doubts about the wisdom of cross-gender casting were joyously entertained and thoroughly schooled in the pliability of Shakespeare's comedy. As the lover with the shortest temper and most unresolved issues, Stacy Ross's performance was mercurial -- rocking out when she thought she had scored a triumph yet hurt and humbled when Benedick was put in his place. Matching her every step of the way was James Carpenter's delicious portrayal of Beatrice -- a much more subtle approach that could alternate scathing put-downs with suggestions of vulnerability while hinting at coyness and emotional depth with a rare delicacy and moments of surprising minimalism.

Beatrice (James Carpenter) and Benedick (Stacy Ross) in a scene
from Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

It's obvious that Eric Ting is off to a rousing start as the company's new artistic director, with many exciting theatrical adventures yet to come. A minor (and welcome) change in the program's editorial guidelines is the more formal use of Mr. and Ms. in each artist's bio. As Aretha Franklin would sing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Performances of Much Ado About Nothing continue through June 19 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda (click here for tickets).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Presumption of Affluence

One thing is clear: This year's Presidential campaign has been marked by an excess of privilege, an echo chamber of multi-dimensional hate (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia), and a clown car of smug, unqualified, and supremely ignorant Republican candidates determined to inflict their religious ideology on America's cultural melting pot. Driven by hubris and their lust for dominance, these people have armed themselves with so much misinformation that they have no idea how toxic their influence has been on the voting population. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines affluenza as:
"The unhealthy and unwelcome psychological and social effects of affluence regarded especially as a widespread societal problem -- extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships."
Although wealth and political power can often be used to protect some people from childhood insecurities and inconvenient truths, it's easier than most people imagine to wrest control of the narrative from their terrified hands. All it takes is a little bit of research to find the critical faults in their fragile manifestos.

While sycophants feed overweaning narcissism by telling people what they really want to hear (as opposed to what they really need to hear), investigating a person's backstory can lead to the discovery of their Achilles' heel. Mel Brooks has spent decades mocking Adolf Hitler as a way of robbing Nazism of its cultural power. John Oliver did a beautiful job of devaluing the Trump empire's brand by revealing that the Republican candidate's former family name was Drumpf.

Tightly held secrets often resist the determined compartmentalizing efforts of control freaks. In some instances, the emotional damage can be kept to a minimum. In others, it can be too hurtful to accept. Bottom line: The person who has everything may not have peace of mind.

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Nick Corporon's beautiful new film, Retake (which will receive its world premiere at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival) is a case in point. A small indie film that slowly disarms a control freak's meticulously constructed sense of privilege and power, its story pits a handsome, healthy, well-educated gay man against an impoverished male prostitute with stronger survival skills and an abundance of street smarts.

Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Jonathan (Tuc Watkins) is a gay man with a mission: intent on a hiring a hustler who can help him live out a carefully-delineated fantasy. His audition process has been meticulously planned. The young man is to spray his body with a favored cologne and, if necessary, don a brunette wig. A soulless, peremptory fuck will determine if Jonathan has found someone who can act "a bit temperamental and rough around the edges." A younger man who Jonathan can "fix."

Poster art for Nick Corporon's Retake

The first hustler he picks up, Scotty (Kit Williamson), proves to be crass, utterly lacking in subtlety, and an obvious mismatch. His second hookup (Devon Graye) is much better tailored to Jonathan's plan to accompany him on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The hustler will be paid double his nightly rate and receive a $1,000 bonus at the end of the trip. Needless to say, Jonathan (who is obviously into role-playing) has developed a strict set of ground rules.
  • The hustler must pretend to be someone named "Brandon" for the entire length of the trip.
  • The hustler must obey all of Jonathan's orders.
  • The hustler must never ask Jonathan any personal questions.
Devon Graye as a street hustler in Retake

For a lonely young man who was kicked out of his home as soon as his parents learned that he was interested in sucking cock, Jonathan's offer is a no-brainer. It offers food, drink, and several nights in a clean bed. The only problem is that the new "Brandon" is a whole lot smarter than he looks and far more intuitive than Jonathan might ever become.

Tuc Watkins as Jonathan in a scene from Retake

Thus, Retake becomes a very different kind of road trip adventure in which there is a slow but steady transfer of power between the two men based on the amount of information "Brandon" is able to glean from various sources. Each day "Brandon" awakes to a new set of clothing that has been laid out for him before Jonathan left their motel room to get some coffee. Each night the sex becomes less mechanical and more tender.

The hustler quickly realizes that Jonathan is a fearfully lonely man wrestling with a broken heart who is trying to relive the final days of a previous failed relationship in a precision-driven laboratory experiment that includes taking Polaroid photos of the new "Brandon" in seemingly insignificant poses.

Tuc Watkins and Devon Graye in a scene from Retake

Whereas Jonathan has a well-toned body, money to spare, and thinks he can control the situation simply because he's paying the young man for his time, the sad truth is that he's an emotional train wreck who does not like to be told when he's acting like a real asshole. The irony, of course, is that the hustler (who has learned how to reinvent himself for each new trick) holds the key to ending Jonathan's emotional mummification.

Devon Graye and Tuc Watkins in a scene from Retake

Viewers won't hear any chirpy renditions of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Getting To Know You" as Jonathan and "Brandon" travel down the lonely highways leading toward the Grand Canyon. Instead, they'll witness a slowly-paced attempt at role-playing mixed with the subversively intellectual seduction of two emotionally damaged men where one has a traditional masculine need to be in control and the other has nothing left to lose.

Tuc Watkins and Devon Graye in a scene from Retake

I first became aware of Tuc Watkins when he was playing Malcolm Laffley on the exquisitely written, beautifully acted, and deliciously directed TV series entitled Beggars and Choosers (which Showtime cancelled after two seasons due to poor ratings). Since then, he has always struck me as an actor whose physical beauty provides an appealing gateway into a rare depth of internal acting and sensitive characterization. Devon Graye offers a shrewd counterweight as a young man who lacks the financial security and professional power that Jonathan has acquired, but has the mental agility to play along with the older man's scenario until the moment when he needs to wrestle the reins from his client's grip and take control of the situation.

One evening, as the two men are enjoying a late night kiss during a nude dip in their motel's swimming pool, they are joined by an interracial couple (played by Sydelle Noel and Derek Phillips) who make no judgments about their relationship. When the two couples next encounter each other in a bar, many shots are consumed, Jonathan lets down his guard far enough to get up and dance, but the following morning he can remember nothing about what happened.

Corporon's film never rushes the narrative, allowing Jonathan and his hustler to slowly learn how to accommodate each other's needs. Beautifully acted and directed with great sensitivity to the tortured souls trapped inside many gay men, Retake portrays a sex worker as the real adult in the room (rather than a predator or the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold). Here's the trailer.

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On rare occasions, an audience's perception of a play can change dramatically over a period of time. When John Guare's dramedy, Six Degrees of Separation, premiered on May 16, 1990 (with a cast headed by John Cunningham, Stockard Channing, and James McDaniel), the jokes in the script delivered the intended laughs. However, the thought that a young African-American con man could so easily infiltrate an upscale circle of friends by pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son was taken seriously as a warning about how trusting and gullible some people can be.

Ouisa (Genevieve Perdue) and friends search through Sidney Poitier's
autobiography for clues about Paul' in Six Degrees of Separation
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Guare's play ran for 485 performances and became a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1993, a film adaptation was released starring Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Will Smith, with Ian McKellan as Geoffrey Miller and Kitty Carlisle, J.J. Abrams, and Anthony Rapp cast in supporting roles.

The Custom Made Theatre recently unveiled a new production of Six Degrees of Separation directed by Stuart Bousel on a unit set designed by Ryan Martin. While the action still takes place in New York in 1990, the audience's reaction to the play was noticeably different on opening night.
  • In many scenes, Guare's drama (based on a real-life story) was treated as a comedy about the naivetĂ© of social elites who know how to wheel and deal in order to secure a $2 million investment in a painting by CĂ©zanne but can barely negotiate a conversation with their own children.
  • There was a noticeable lack of shock that a lonely, amoral gay man who had been ignored by a group of "cool kids" during his college years could be so willing to divulge their family backgrounds to a con man in exchange for a steady supply of black cock.
  • When the wealthy victims attempt to report what has happened to the police, they are stunned to discover that, because they had (a) given the con man the keys to their apartment and (b) he had not stolen anything from them, they lacked any grounds to press charges. A cynical audience found this quite amusing.
Matt Weimer as Flan in Six Degrees of Separation
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

With all due respect to the six degrees of separation theory originally explained in 1929 by Frigyes Karinthy, what changed that caused today's tech-savvy audience to react so differently to Guare's play than an audience might have in 1990?
  • In 1991, AOL for DOS was launched; the following year AOL for Windows was released.
  • In 1995, Yahoo! made its debut as a powerful Internet search engine.
  • Early in 2004, Facebook debuted on the Internet. By the first quarter of 2016, the company had 1.65 billion monthly active users.
  • In August of 2004, when Google had its hugely successful IPO, its stated mission was "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
  • Launched in July of 2006, by the first quarter of 2016 Twitter boasted an average of 310 million monthly active users.
  • In 2011, AOL purchased The Huffington Post as part of its plan to reposition itself as a digital media company.
Genevieve Perdue as Ouisa in Six Degrees of Separation
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In the following video clip, actor Kevin Bacon explains how a popular parlor game using his name took on a life of its own and eventually helped to develop a powerful fundraising tool.

With the maturation of the Internet and the increasing use of social media, it's now much more possible to track a person's six degrees of separation from another human. As a result, the audience for Custom Made Theatre's production has a much deeper understanding of how the world has grown more interconnected than Guare's characters could ever have imagined in 1990.

The production benefitted from Matt Weimer's portrayal of the art dealer Flan Kittredge, Genevieve Perdue's touching portrayal of his well-intentioned wife, Ouisa, Carl Lucania's work as their South African friend, Geoffrey, and Karl Schackne's appearance as the overly trusting Dr. Fine. Kyle Goldman drew laughs doubling as both an aggressive hustler and Flan and Ouisa's son.

Rick (Sam Bertken) and Elizabeth (Alisha Ehrlich) are a naive young
couple who befriend Paul in Six Degrees of Separation
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

While Sam Bertken and Alisha Ehrlich had a wistful appeal as the trusting young couple so easily hoodwinked by Khary Moye's subtly manipulative Paul, it was Richard Sargent's characterization of Trent that brought a touch of gritty reality to the story.

Paul (Khary Moye) gets some valuable information from Trent
(Richard Sargent) in a scene from Six Degrees of Separation
(Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Bottom line: People can usually be trusted to hear what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Performances of Six Degrees of Separation continue at Custom Made Theatre through June 18 (click here for tickets).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Who Are You Now?

Most cultures are based on a system of binary values. Whether seen in terms of male and female, plus and minus, right and left, or yin and yang, it's easy for people to understand ideas built around the concept of direct opposites. Whether framed in terms of black and white, good and bad, sky and sea, or wet and dry, knowledge built upon opposites is easy to digest.

However, when the human element is thrown into the equation, strange things start to happen. Compartmentalized behavior leads to concepts of the good twin versus the evil twin, a woman trapped in a man's body, a two-faced liar, a double-dealing crook, and a two-party political system.

Things get really messy when the values with which a person was raised are challenged by conflicting values from another culture. Whether one is met by people who speak a different language, adhere to a different set of religious beliefs, or whose skin is a different color, when confronted with opposing realities, cracks appear in what were rigidly-constructed and strictly enforced trains of thought.

Sometimes those ideological trains run right off the rails (the recent brouhaha over ridiculous bathroom bills is a prime example). Whether a devout Christian succumbs to logic, science, and atheism or an avowed meat eater chooses to become a vegan, a certain amount of confusion and culture shock can be expected as part of the process. However, as a dramatic device, nothing comes close to gifting a character with a multiple personality disorder. For a writer, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

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Moments of madness and delusional behavior are commonly found in bel canto opera, where distraught heroines may stab their bridegrooms to death or break into roulades of regret, trills of tintinnabulation, and arpeggios of anxiety at the mere thought that their intended could be messing around with a mysteriously veiled woman. While coloratura sopranos know that Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini's I Puritani are classic examples of how to lose your marbles in front of a captive audience, tenors and basses have fewer opportunities to go bonkers onstage.

Brian Herndon stars in Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the tale of a talented doctor whose chemical experiments had produced a serum with horrifying side effects. Not only did its ingestion begin to deform his body, the serum unleashed the sociopath previously hidden from the public by the doctor's good deeds and standing in the community. Two years following its publication, the gruesome exploits of a serial killer named Jack the Ripper gripped London with so much fear that a staged adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde had to be shut down.

Brian Herndon as the evil Mr. Hyde in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Since the publication of Stevenson's thriller, more than 120 adaptations of Jekyll & Hyde have appeared on stage and screen (including Leslie Bricusse, Steve Cuden, and Frank Wildhorn's odious 1990 musical). Sigmund Freud's work has led to deeper explorations of the psyche while increasingly dangerous drugs such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine have destroyed countless lives. Along the way, the audience's appetite for gore and terror has grown by leaps and bounds.

The co-artistic directors of CentralWorks (Gary Graves and Jan Zvaifler) have been working on a trilogy of Gothic dramas since 2014, when the company premiered Dracula Inquest. Following 2015's world premiere of a play about Charlotte Perkins Gilman entitled The Yellow Wallpaper, they recently presented the final work in their trilogy: Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde. With his curiosity about Stevenson's writing process as the key to putting a new spin on an old horror story, Graves has fashioned a fascinating new script based on Stevenson’s classic tale of good and evil. As the playwright explains:
"There’s a story that Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a sort of mad fever dream in just three days. He claimed the story came to him directly from his unconsciousness, presenting itself to him in a series of dreams. He was experimenting with tapping into his unconscious in his writing through the exploration of his dreams and the first person he read the story to was his wife, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson. After Fanny criticized the draft (and allegedly accused him of ‘missing the point of the allegory’), Stevenson flew into a rage. The two of them had an ‘almighty row’ about it that concluded with Stevenson heaving the manuscript into the fireplace, where it burned to ashes."
Robert Louis Stevenson (Brian Herndon) tries to explain his latest
story idea to his terrified wife (Danielle Levin) in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
"The story we know today is the second draft, the revised version. I was fascinated with questions about what might have been in the first draft and what the big fight might have been about. The story has been interpreted as an allegory for late Victorian era homosexuality and as a parable of addiction. What exactly is ‘the allegory’ in Jekyll and Hyde? For me, the addiction theme is central. There is evidence that Stevenson was experimenting with a new drug called 'cocaine' when he wrote the book, a drug with addictive powers far better understood today than when it appeared in the 1880s. Why did Stevenson burn the manuscript? Was he addicted to a mysterious powder that fueled his writing but was making a monster of him? What was the big fight with Fanny about?”
Stevenson's novella was written under curious circumstances. The celebrated author of Treasure Island was staying in the coastal town of Bournemouth, where he had been sent to help him recover from a recent illness. His wife wrote that:
"In the small hours of one morning,[...] I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation scene."
Robert Louis Stevenson (Brian Herndon) reassures his wife
(Danielle Levin) that his new story will be a goldmine in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Clocking in at 85 minutes, the artistic team at CentralWorks has done a splendid job of tightening the screws on their audience's nerves as Fanny frets about how to pay the bills, keep her husband alive, and prevent him from publishing something that will forever tarnish his legacy. Meanwhile, her obsessive husband keeps struggling to wrestle his dreams into text while insisting that, gruesome as it may sound, Jekyll & Hyde will save them from financial ruin (he was right).

Handsomely directed by Jan Zvaifler, this nailbiter benefits immensely from Gregory Scharpen's superb sound design (which includes some splendid musical choices and an uncanny ability to raise the creepiness level of the theatrical experience). Danielle Levin delivers an impressive portrait of the worried (and often terrified) Franny, who cannot understand what is driving her husband's frenzy and has good reason to fear for their future.

Watching Brian Herndon's portrayal of Robert Louis Stevenson is a genuine pleasure. Often seen as a supporting character actor on Bay area stages, Herndon delivers a riveting performance as a financially insolvent writer struggling with a nightmarish artistic concept and new writing process that are is so much bigger than anything he has attempted in the past. It is a long-deserved and well-earned triumph for such a talented artist.

Brian Herndon stars as the doomed Dr. Jekyll in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Performances of Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde continue through June 12 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
In 1917 (long before Shirley MacLaine started talking about her past-life experiences), a posthumously published novel by Henry James was adapted for the stage by John L. Balderston. Its protagonist was a young American who traveled back through time and met his ancestors from the period of the American Revolution. James's The Sense of the Past was transformed into Berkeley Square and, following a successful 1926 premiere in London, became a big hit on Broadway in 1929 with Leslie Howard starring as Peter Standish.

Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in the 1933 film adaptation. In 1951, Tyrone Power starred as an atomic scientist who traveled back to the 18th century in I'll Never Forget You (also known as Man of Two Worlds)

Following a string of successes with his songwriting partner, Frederick Loewe (Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot), lyricist Alan Jay Lerner teamed up with composer Burton Lane in 1965 for a new musical whose easily-hypnotized heroine had extrasensory perception (ESP) and, during sessions with her psychiatrist, revealed that she had led a rather ribald life in 18th-century England. During its troubled out-of-town tryout, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever replaced Louis Jordan with John Cullum in the role of Dr. Mark Bruckner prior to opening on October 17, 1965 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre with Barbara Harris as the show's star attraction.

Although On A Clear Day... ran for 280 performances, when it was transformed into a film vehicle for Barbra Streisand, numerous liberties were taken with the script and score which eventually made it seem more like a showcase for Streisand's costumes than anything else. In 2011, Peter Parnell did a major reworking of Lerner's original script in which the neurotic Daisy Gamble of the 1960s was transformed into the equally neurotic David Gamble of the post-Stonewall 1970s (an insecure gay florist who, like Daisy, wanted to quit smoking in order to please his nerdy and slightly boring boyfriend, Warren).

Chris Morrell as David Gamble in NCTC's production of
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Parnell's treatment, which scrapped the 18th-century material and recast Melinda Wells as an aspiring 1940s jazz singer, was developed with the Vineyard Theatre and inserted four less impressive songs that were written by Lerner and Lane for 1951's Royal Wedding (which starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell). Despite a rather extensive facelift, when the revised version of On A Clear Day ... opened on Broadway in November 2011 starring Harry Connick, Jr. and Jessie Mueller, it lasted a mere 57 performances.

San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center recently staged Parnell's revised version of the show with Ed Decker directing a downsized ensemble on an appealing unit set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo (with costumes by Wes Crain and choreography by Jayne Zaban). With the handsome William Giammona portraying the still-grieving psychiatrist and Chris Morrell appearing as the insecure David (in a performance that resembled a cross between Bob Denver's Gilligan and Jamie Farr's Corporal Klinger). Melissa O'Keefe became the new, Jazz-era Melinda.

Melissa O'Keefe as Melinda Wells in a scene from
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Having seen the original Broadway production 50 years ago, I was extremely curious to see what Parnell's reworking of the story might accomplish. There's no doubt that the show is now a whole lot funnier. With some perky jabs at Streisand and with Warren (originally portrayed by William Daniels) having become a much more embraceable character with OCD tendencies, the subplots are somewhat more believable. Supporting roles were filled by Audrey Baker as David's roommate, Muriel, Jessica Coker as Sharone Stein (Mark's mentor and professional colleague), and Christine Macomber as Mark's secretary.

While this new production featured music direction by Matthew Lee Cannon and new instrumental arrangements by Ben Prince, what I found severely lacking was the lavish romanticism of Lane's score. Those who saw the original version of On A Clear Day.... may long for a more lyrical and lush treatment of Lane's music. I still find songs like "Wait 'Til We're Sixty Five" and "On Board The S.S. Bernard Cohn" fairly ridiculous. However, the relocation of the title song to the show's final moments (and its buildup to a powerful ensemble piece) proved to be most impressive.

Melissa O'Keefe (Melinda) and William Giammona (Mark Bruckner)
in a scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

The essence of On A Clear Day... rests with the plot's attempts to manipulate time. The forward momentum of the plot holds its fascination in the 2011 version (even if it hasn't solved all of the story's dramatic problems). However, as I watched the show unfold, I found myself wrestling with an extremely odd hunch that this 1965 Lerner-Lane musical may yet have further to go in its evolutionary process. Let me explain why.

Any show that originates in a contemporary setting runs the risk of becoming a period piece after several decades (Hair being the classic example). Had Parnell begun to revise On A Clear Day... several years later, he might have found much more dramatic gold by re-envisioning Daisy Gamble as a modern day transwoman, Melinda as a 1940s male crooner like Frank Sinatra looking forward to sex reassignment surgery (although I would hate to have him renamed Melvin), and Mark Bruckner as an openly gay psychiatrist who lost his lover during the AIDS crisis.

Kevin Singer (Warren) and William Giammona (Mark Bruckner)
in a scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Although the 2011 interpretation adds some interesting gay twists (especially in the growing attraction David has to Mark and Mark's sudden awareness that during their hypnosis sessions he's been dancing with and kissing a man), a further updating of the show would bring a much deeper poignancy to songs like "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and "She Isn't You" (which started off as "She Wasn't You" in 1965 and became "He Isn't You" in the 1970 film adaptation). Unfortunately, splitting the acting responsibilities for Daisy and Melinda between two actors eliminates a key magical element of the show's emotional core when the audience needs to witness an actor's physical and vocal transformation from one character to another character in another era.

William Giammona (Mark Bruckner) and Melissa O'Keefe (Melinda) in a
scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Sound confusing? So are past-life regressions and reincarnation. Performances of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through June 12 (click here for tickets).

Monday, May 23, 2016

On The 21st Century

It's easy to sit back and wallow in nostalgia. When it comes to the literature of musical theatre, it's tempting to drift back into the emotional security of such giants as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Cy Coleman, and Leonard Bernstein (as well as such famous songwriting teams as George & Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz, Charles Strouse & Lee Adams, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt, and Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick). However, as composer John Kander notes:
"When Cabaret happened, Fred Ebb and I had done one show together, Flora the Red Menace. We learned that the important thing is to create what matters to you and what interests you. This is what I will always remember. Hal Prince said, ‘Whatever happens, we will meet the next day in my apartment and talk about the next piece.’"
Instead of looking back 50, 60, or 70 years, let's start with the turn of the 21st century and think about the important contributions to the art form that have occurred since 2000.

Blockbuster hits include 2001's The Producers and Urinetown: The Musical, 2002's Hairspray, 2003's Avenue Q and Wicked, 2005's Billy Elliot: The Musical, Jersey Boys, and Monty Python's Spamalot, 2009's American Idiot, 2011's Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, 2014's An American in Paris, and 2015's Hamilton.

Shows which did well financially, toured extensively, and/or did well in regional theatres include:

Shows which may have been hailed artistically but did not fare well at the box office include 2001's Jerry Springer: The Opera, 2002's Sweet Smell of Success, 2003's Caroline or Change, 2008's Road Show and A Catered Affair, 2013's The Bridges of Madison County, 2015's AllegianceTuck Everlasting, and It Shoulda Been You.

Bay area audiences were recently treated to two magnificent productions of shows by respected songwriters which nevertheless failed to become big hits. One examined a relationship from start to finish by following its leads down opposing chronological paths. The other documented the dissolution of a marriage due to drugs, debauchery, and death. Both productions were rapturously received by their opening night audiences.

* * * * * * * * *
Several musicals have traced the evolution of a couple's relationship over a distinct period of time. One of my favorites is Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's 1966 hit, I Do! I Do! (which starred Robert Preston and Mary Martin and was based on Jan de Hartog's 1951 play, The Fourposter, that starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy). Another is Long Story Short (written by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda), a musical adaptation of David Schulner's 2001 play (An Infinite Ache) about a nerdy young Jewish man who moves to Los Angeles and falls in love with an Asian American woman.

Jason Robert Brown (who has written Songs for a New World, Parade, 13, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas, and contributed songs to Urban Cowboy) is an accomplished songwriter with exceptional skills as an arranger and orchestrator. In 1999, Brown's music for Parade won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Original Musical Score. CBS Films has announced plans for a screen adaptation of 13.

Zak Resnick as Jamie Wellerstein in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Brown's two-person song cycle entitled The Last Five Years had its world premiere at Chicago's Northlight Theatre in 2001. Following its New York premiere, the show won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. A cast album starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Renee Scott was released in 2002.

While some might choose to think of The Last Five Years as merely a song cycle, it is so meticulously crafted for the stage that its bare-bones construction is a structural marvel. An extremely economic show to mount, Brown's musical has been performed by numerous regional theatre companies and received several international productions.

Although a film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan was released in 2015, what makes The Last Five Years so fascinating is how, instead of following its two leads on parallel tracks through their relationship, it follows them from a very different perspective.
  • Forward momentum is maintained by Jamie Wellerstein, a talented young Jewish novelist from Spring Valley, New York whose path is followed from his early days of trying to get published through his first meeting with Cathy, the woman who will become his wife and he will eventually leave behind.
  • Reverse momentum starts with Cathy ruefully singing that Jamie's gone and she's "Still Hurting," before moving chronologically backward until Cathy is seen nervously trying to audition for a show.
Margo Seibert as Cathy Hiatt in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If one were to map out the character development in Merrily We Roll Along and A Star Is Born along the two lines of an X-shaped graph, the point where the two lines intersect would correspond to the moment in the The Last Five Years when Jamie and Cathy sing "The Next Ten Minutes" while seated in a rowboat in Central Park.

Jamie (Zak Resnick) and Cathy (Margo Seibert) in a scene
from The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The American Conservatory Theatre recently debuted a new production of The Last Five Years which may be one of the most fulfilling musical theatre experiences I've had in a long, long time. With Zak Resnick as the confident, easygoing Jamie and Margo Seibert as the needier, less talented Cathy, the production was blessed by Kai Harada's impressive sound design and Callie Floor's contemporary costumes.

With music direction by Matt Castle and stage direction by Michael Berresse, the two leads captured the hilariously clumsy, justifiably resentful, and achingly poignant moments in Jamie and Cathy's relationship. Resnick shone in "The Schmuel Song," "If I Didn't Believe In You," and "I Could Never Rescue You" while Siebert brought an exceptional sense of vulnerability to "Still Hurting," "A Summer in Ohio," and "I Can Do Better Than That."

Margo Seibert as Cathy Hiatt in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The combination of Tim Mackabee's movable scrimmed elements with Robert Wierzel's exquisite lighting helped to forge numerous magical moments in which one partner could be seen fading into the background as the other held the audience's rapt attention. With such extremely likeable lead performers (and the composer's phenomenal arrangements providing a musical cushion of great vitality), ACT's production of The Last Five Years became an especially intimate 90 minutes of musical theatre.

Zak Resnick as Jamie Wellerstein in a scene from
The Last Five Years (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each hearing of Brown's song cycle continues to amaze and enchant a listener with its emotional variety and contemporary sound. Seeing it come to life in a near-perfect production had me floating on a cloud for several hours after leaving the theatre.

Performances of The Last Five Years continue at the American Conservatory Theater through June 5 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the Victoria Theatre, the opening night performance of Andrew Lippa's divinely decadent musical, The Wild Party (which had a brief run of 54 performances at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000) was quite deservedly greeted with wild cheering and a foot-stomping ovation. Raucously directed by Jenn BeVard with outstanding choreography by Alex Rodriguez, this production made Kander & Ebb's 1975 Jazz-Age musical, Chicago, seem almost quaint.

James Mayagoitia and Zachariah Mohammed as the D'Armano
Brothers in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Lippa's credits include John & JenA Little PrincessThe Addams FamilyBig Fish, and I Am Harvey Milk (the 60-minute, 12-movement oratorio that was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus along with the Atlanta Gay Men's ChorusDayton Gay Men's ChorusGay Men's Chorus of Los AngelesHeartland Men's ChorusTwin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, and Vancouver Men's Chorus). In my review of I Am Harvey Milk's world premiere, I noted that Lippa's music "struts, sasses, soars, and comes close to breaking hearts before reaching the kind of rousing climax that brings an audience to its feet, roaring with approval." Those words apply equally to The Wild Party.

Based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party focuses on the marital woes of a randy professional clown named Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes) and his equally sex-hungry wife, Queenie (Jocelyn Pickett), who have reached the point in what was once a hump-happy marriage where boredom is starting to dull their relationship. Brooding, alienation, and abusive behavior have started to creep into their daily lives. When their sex starts to feel routine and Burrs insists that "When I called you a lazy slut this morning, that was just a figure of speech," Queenie decides it's time to spice up their marriage.

Paul Grant Hovannes as Burrs in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

It's the Roaring Twenties and, in Queenie's mind, a logical strategy would be to invite their friends over for a big party with the goal of finding a way to humiliate her husband. To her surprise, Burrs (who has an insatiable sexual appetite) readily agrees but things don't go quite the way Queenie had hoped. As the night wears on, her dreams misfire (as does a gun).

Jocelyn Pickett as Queenie in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

The guests Queenie invites like to party hard wherever booze flows freely and cocaine is available. An oversized boxer (Daniel Barrington Rubio) and his raunchy, petite dame (Lizzie O'Hara) have a nice specialty number ("Two Of A Kind") about how opposites attract. A desperately lonely dyke named Madeline True (Kathryn Fox Hart) sings about how much she lusts after "An Old-Fashioned Love Story."

As Burrs keeps drinking, he becomes increasingly sloppy and aggressive as he attempts to put the moves on various women, ranging from the underaged Nadine (Lizzie Moss) to Eddie the boxer's girl, Mae.

Kate (Alexandra Feifers) loves being the life of any party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

When Queenie's rival, the predatory Kate (Alexandra Feifers) arrives at the party with a handsome, somewhat aloof black man (RaMond Thomas) in tow, the evening takes a nasty turn.  Despite being warned by Kate "not to go there," Queenie decides to humiliate her husband by seducing Mr. Black. More than willing to return the favor, Kate sets her sights on the drunk and vulnerable Burrs.

Kate (Alexandra Feifers) and Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes)
in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As the party progresses, Black keeps noticing the physically abusive way Burrs treats Queenie. When he asks her why she stays with a man who obviously doesn't respect her, Queenie can't help but wonder if she enjoys being roughed up by powerful men. By the time the hedonistic party starts to wind down (and people fall asleep in each other's arms), Queenie and Black have ended up in her bed.

RaMond Thomas is the mysterious Mr. Black in The Wild Party
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

The next morning, when Burrs awakens next to Kate and discovers his wife in bed with someone else, his jealousy and rage get the best of him. Burrs reaches for a gun, threatening to kill Queenie, Black, or perhaps even commit suicide. A quick move meant to defuse the situation leads to tragic consequences.

Black (RaMond Thomas), Queenie (Jocelyn Pickett) and Burrs
(Paul Grant Hovannes) sing "Make Me Happy" in a scene from
The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As a company that aims to do serious justice to the musicals it produces, Ray of Light Theatre continues to impress and grow its audience with high performance standards, keen attention to musical detail, and rock-solid stage direction. David Aaron Brown's musical direction for The Wild Party was first rate, aided by Theodore J.H. Hulsker's sound design.

With a unit set designed by Erik LaDue, lighting by Joe D'Emilio, and costumes by Melissa Wortman and Sibilla Carini, ROLT's production of The Wild Party pulsed and throbbed with a raw energy that never sagged. In addition to stirring performances by Paul Grant Hovannes (Burrs), Jocelyn Pickett (Queenie), RaMond Thomas (Black), and Alexandra Feifers (Kate), mention should be made of Kathryn Fox Hart's hilarious portrayal of  Madeline, Malakani Severson's dance solo, and the fine work of James Mayagoitia and Zachariah Mohammed as the incestuous dance team, the D'Armano Brothers.

Burrs (Paul Grant Hovannes) puts the moves on Mae (Lizzie O'Hara)
in a scene from The Wild Party (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Performances of The Wild Party continue through June 11 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets).