Friday, July 15, 2016

Back To The Eighties

While conservatives seem hell-bent on turning the clock back to the 1950s, others are feeling nostalgic about the 1980s (a period of great promise on Broadway). Despite the fact that the AIDS epidemic took a frightening toll on the artistic community during that decade, a lot of good theatre was filling Broadway's stages.

Add in the Broadway premieres of Amadeus, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Les Misérables and it was quite a decade. By sheer coincidence, this month offered Bay area audiences new productions of 1983's Fences and 1989's City of Angels.

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I first saw Fences during its 1987 pre-Broadway tryout at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco with James Earl Jones in the lead role. This was the first work for which San Francisco's Carole Shorenstein-Hays was sole producer. As she later recalled, "I read the play and I thought, gosh, I can identify with this. I know that people have spoken about it as having the specificity of a particular culture, but I never saw it that way. I saw that that was my father, that was me -- it was an American play."

The sixth segment in August Wilson's ten-decade-long "Pittsburgh Cycle," Fences won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. Since then, Wilson's family drama has provided a beautiful showcase for African-American artists. A screen adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who appeared in the play's 2010 Broadway revival) began filming in Pittsburgh earlier this year and is scheduled for a December release in movie theaters.

In April 2014, the Marin Theatre Company staged a beautiful production of Fences with Carl Lumbly as Troy Maxson and Margo Hall as his wife, Rose. In reviewing the production, I noted that:
"Margo Hall is one of the Bay area's dramatic wonders. An actress, singer, and playwright with an uncanny ability to create complex characterizations, she has a great talent for gaining an audience's sympathy by underplaying a role. An artist who often paints sorrow with knowing silences, Hall communicates the utter sadness and despair of a woman who has tried to remain loyal through 18 difficult years of marriage only to be hit with the ugliness of her husband's betrayal when Troy informs her that he's about to become a father (with another woman). Where other actresses might use Rose's big scene in Act II to show their vocal fire, Hall's eyes and body language reveal a woman who, fearing her husband's anger, has always forced herself to remain in control of her feelings."
Margo Hall as Rose Maxson in Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In a rare and serendipitous piece of casting, Bay area audiences have a second chance to experience Hall's portrayal of Rose this summer in the California Shakespeare Theater's first production of a play by August Wilson. As directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Rose now seems more girlish (even a bit coy) for most of Act I, acting as the quiet voice of reason whenever her husband's outsized ego and macho bluster threaten to harm his two sons, Lyons (Lance Gardner) and Cory (J. Alphonse Nicholson), or deprive them of their dreams for the future.

This is a woman who, although she can easily hold her own reciting baseball statistics with the men in her life, has kept her natural intelligence and steel spine hidden from them for many years. As a result, her great second act moment (when Troy admits that he's fathered a child with another woman) provides a deeper contrast and fiercer determination to take control over her life. As she warns him, "From this moment, you a womanless man."

Margo Hall (Rose) and Aldo Billingslea (Troy)
in a scene from Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Since taking over as artistic director of Cal Shakes, Eric Ting has stressed his desire to broaden the company's community outreach. As part of the process, Myrick-Hodges and Hall explored questions about Rose’s actions in story gatherings with African-American women housed at two of Cal Shakes’s community partners, the Allen Temple Arms in East Oakland and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s North County Women’s Shelter. Among the questions addressed were:
  • What do women like Rose have to say about the choices they are faced with?
  • What are the sacrifices they make, the joys they find?  
  • What happens when they take space and talk back? When they make sure to listen?’
Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall in a scene from Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In her director's note, Myrick-Hodges reflects back on her personal lack of enthusiasm about Fences when she first read it as "a smug, 17-year-old" and again at 27. Why did her views about Wilson's drama change by the time she had reached middle age?
“By the age of 40, I had to forgive, be forgiven, and even remind myself to forgive myself for all the reprehensible lies, mistakes, and manipulations I used and utilized. I was responsible for bad situations I created solely through my own shameful actions; and, when I was forgiven, it was almost as heavy as the burden of being ashamed. I had forgiven scenarios in which the gentlest spirit may have considered murder and I had reconciled myself with fallacies that I may never be able to change. I had learned what it meant to forgive and be forgiven. Again... and again... and again. Thus, on my third reading of Wilson’s play (where before I had rolled my eyes), I was now nodding my head in agreement and I wanted to finally participate in this play. My hope is that this production gives its audience the same opportunity that I had: to feel what is being said. In their own way, in their own time. Not interpret, not deconstruct, but to listen.”
Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges

The Cal Shakes production of Fences stars Aldo Billingslea, a towering presence onstage whose athletic portrayal of the powerful former baseball player (who showed great promise while batting in the Negro League but was too old to reach his full potential following integration) easily wins hearts. Billingslea's portrayal soon starts to harden the audience against him as Wilson reveals what an asshole Troy Maxson can be to those who love him the most.

Aldo Billingslea as Troy Maxson in a
scene from Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Billingslea's performance drives much of the evening, he receives strong support from Guiesseppe Jones as Bono (his long-time friend that he met while serving time in jail), Donald E. Lacy, Jr. (as Troy's mentally ill brother, Gabriel, who was injured during World War II), and Lance Gardner as Lyons (Troy's older son, who hopes to become a musician). As Troy's other two children, J. Alphonse Nickerson was especially strong as Cory with Anaiya Asomugha appearing as Troy's daughter, Raynell, on opening night.

J. Alphonse Nicholson as Cory Maxson in a scene from Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Two design factors simultaneously enhanced and, in an odd way, complicated this production. Michael Locher's unit set (which often asked audiences to follow characters as they moved through the house's floor plan) did not always provide clear sight lines. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design was most noticeable between scenes, when musical selections were often combined with the sound of women's voices in a ghost-like soundscape. As Tierra Allen (the company’s Artistic Engagement Coordinator) explains when discussing the company's outreach effort:
“Over food and music, we communed candidly around what it means to be a woman like Rose and the challenges and rewards of making family with our men. The women contributed symbolic objects and original writing to an altar celebrating the complex roles of black women in families. Some offered their personal stories as audio recordings which you may hear in the sonic landscape of the evening’s performance.”
Aldo Billingslea as Troy Maxson in Fences (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of August Wilson's Fences continue through July 31 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here to order tickets).

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San Francisco is noted for its year-long schedule of film festivals. Produced by the Film Noir Foundation, each year includes the extremely popular Noir City Film Festival. With so many friends complaining about how spooked they are that Facebook is now tracking of all their purchases in order to target ads to their timelines, imagine how I felt after returning home from the blazingly superb opening night performance of City of Angels at the San Francisco Playhouse to find this video in my Facebook feed.

Those who love noir films can't get enough of their characters, their plots, their actors, directors -- hell, some people can't even get enough of the lighting in these films. When City of Angels opened on Broadway on December 11, 1989, it quickly became obvious that the show was a labor of love for its creative team (composer Cy Coleman, lyricist David Zippel, librettist Larry Gelbart, director Michael Blakemore, set designer Robin Wagner, and costume designer Florence Klotz).

With 40 scenes and 36 characters, the show won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and eight Drama Desk Awards. Its librettist, the great Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, M*A*S*H) even won the Edgar Allen Poe Award!

Audiences (especially noir fans) were thrilled by the concept that a Hollywood screenwriter's life would be portrayed in full color while the characters in the his script would appear in black-and-white scenes designed to match the mood and dialogue of noir films. Although City of Angels ran for 879 performances (and the national tour entertained audiences from Los Angeles to Tampa for nearly 18 months), the show is not revived as frequently as one might expect.

In January of 2006, City of Angels was staged by Reprise! Broadway's Best at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. A 2011 revival at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut earned a solid review in The New York Times.

Despite great reviews, the original West End production only lasted for four months. A London revival at the Donmar Warehouse was nominated for five Olivier Awards but no plans ever materialized to bring the production to New York.

Some wonder if the musical's plot is too intricate or if the gags come in such rapid succession that the audience can barely take it all in. Others have wondered if Cy Coleman's brilliant jazz score, which (like Sondheim's A Little Night Music) utilizes a small vocal ensemble working in tandem with the orchestra, was not as accessible as, say, a Jerry Herman musical.

The Angel City Four are a radio show's backup singing
ensemble in City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The truth is that City of Angels is like a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. Keeping track of everything that's going on requires an alert, detail-oriented audience. That's why I'm delighted to report that the San Francisco Playhouse production succeeds in spades, largely due to the combination of Bill English's intricate unit set (which features a revolving ring that can bring actors and scenery out from beneath an elevated platform), his astute stage direction, and the original creators' joyous celebration of noir films while lovingly mocking the industry that produced them. As English explains:
City of Angels addresses the inherent conflict between the heart and the mind. The pursuit of art to develop our hearts and compassion is kicked to a distant last on the priority list of our educational institutions. With such disparity between developing the mind over the heart, we risk creating bifurcated minds that cannot find the heart of the matter. The noir protagonists, so flawed and cynical, are truly existential. In our spiritually challenged times, these noir heroes still resonate for us as we witness them blunder their way towards moral clarity. Using only 11 actors, it is a worthy challenge to test the mettle of our growing company.”
Stone (Brandon Dahlquist) and Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) sing
"You're Nothing Without Me" in a scene from City of Angels
 (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
City of Angels also explores the conflict between art and commerce. How is art even possible in the commodified American marketplace where mass-produced culture creates a wasteland of worthless detritus and working artists are constantly faced with the temptation to sell out for lots of dough? Stine (the young novelist of City of Angels) confronts this conflict head-on when he is plunged into the Sodom and Gomorrah of Hollywood. The conniving, materialistic Buddy Fidler offers Stine $50,000 to turn his treasured opus into cinematic pulp. This timeless American conflict between art and commerce still festers in our consciousness.”
Buddy Fidler (Ryan Drummond) is the meddling producer who insists
on  tinkering with a script written by Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) 
in City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Speaking of the curious relationship between art and commerce, in recent articles I've mentioned how Broadway composers will occasionally recycle songs used in one show by transplanting them into another.

A great deal of credit for the strength of this production goes to music director Dave Dobrusky and Mary Chun for her superb reduction of the original orchestral score. Doing double duty designing sound and projections, Theodore J.H. Hulsker pretty much hit the ball right out of the park on this production. Credit also goes to Michael Oesch for his lighting design, Melissa Torchia for her costumes, Morgan Dayley for her choreography, and Mike “Miguel” Martinez for his fight choreography.

San Francisco Playhouse cast this production beautifully, with Jeffrey Brian Adams as the screenwriter, Stine, and Brandon Dahlquist as his fictional detective, Stone. Ken Brill, William Giammona, Monique Hafen, and Caitlan Taylor offered some snazzy ensemble work as the Angel City Four.

Stone (Brian Dahlquist) and Lieutenant Munoz (Rudy Guerrero)
in a scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In supporting roles, Samantha Rose Cardenas shone as Mallory/Avril while Rudy Guerrero excelled doubling as Lieutenant Munoz and Pancho (the actor who portrays him). Doubling as the love interests in Stine and Stone's lives, Monique Hafen was a sadder-but-wiser Donna and Oolie while Caitlan Taylor had some nice dramatic moments as both Gabby and Bobbi. John Paul Gonzalez was appropriately narcissistic as the sleazy crooner, Jimmy Powers.

For sheer comic bravura, I tip my hat to Ryan Drummond, who was obviously having a blast doubling as Hollywood film producer Buddy Fidler and his screen counterpart, Irwin. Nancy Zoppi scored some major laughs onscreen as the scheming Alaura and offscreen as Buddy's wife, Carla.

Alaura (Nancy Zoppi) and her son, Peter (John Paul Gonzalez)
in a scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Running through all the backstabbing, intrigue, and plot twists is Coleman's brilliant score, which features such gems as "What You Don't Know About Women," "With Every Breath I Take," "Lost and Found," and "You're Nothing Without Me." This production is a grand triumph for the folks at San Francisco Playhouse; the kind of theatrical experience you'll definitely want to see more than once.

John Paul Gonzalez (Jimmy Powers) and Samantha Rose Cardenas
(Avril) in a scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of City of Angels continue through September 17 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

1 comment:

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