Monday, December 5, 2016

Introvert's Delight

Consider, if you will, the standard guidelines for "holiday entertainment."
  • It should be appropriate for children of all ages.
  • It should end on an uplifting note.
  • It should be highly marketable for group sales.
  • Tchotchkes and other spin-off products should be designed to augment an attendee's holiday gift-giving options.
  • Music helps. So do cute animals.
  • If the show ends with a Christmas tree, even better!
A quick look at what's available to Bay area audiences includes performances of The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge in Love, The Lion King, the Christmas Revels, and Cirque du Soleil's new Mexico-themed show, Luzia.

However, what if you have a show with tremendous theatrical appeal that was not created for children? A show that doesn't depend on Santa Claus to sell tickets? Or Ebeneezer Scrooge to ram a message about charity and redemption down the audience's throat?

What if, instead of showing their sixpack abs, getting drunk, or doing drugs, the romantic leads in your show are highly-educated introverts with excessive levels of curiosity who long to meet a compatible intellectual for friendship first and romance later?

What if, instead of getting wasted and sexting pictures of their genitals via Snapchat, these people prefer to read and write long letters (much longer than 140 characters!) in which they discuss the books they've read, wonder about the nature of the universe, and share their deepest thoughts?

What if the play you are producing does not have any characters achieving sexual gratification as its ultimate goal?

If you are a producer, you'd probably worry about diminished box office sales. If, on the other hand, you're a smart producer, you'd realize that there is an underserved segment of the audience for live theatre that craves such entertainment and will gladly buy tickets to your show. Some of them might wish they could make such a show a holiday tradition for themselves and other adults who have not been crippled with cynicism about the holidays.

Your show might be the perfect tonic for those who simply like to have a good time at the theatre without feeling pressured to "get with the program." If that's the case, then heed the wise words of Buddy Ackerman: "Shut up, listen, and learn!"

Two of the Bay area's leading regional theatre companies had huge successes on the opening nights of their holiday productions. One was a world premiere set in England in 1815. The other took place in Budapest in approximately 1933. Both stories are awash in period charm, focused on a segment of society that appreciates good manners, and are dedicated to the quest for a marriage of the mind and soul. The ultimate goal? Intellectual and emotional intimacy.

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Back in the 1960s, the advertising agency handling the account for Levy's Breads came up with a marketing campaign that charmed New Yorkers.

Just as a person didn't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, one needn't be an ardent fan of Jane Austen's novels to relish Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, a delightful new play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon that received a tightly-choreographed rolling world premiere from the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and the Marin Theatre Company.

As the co-playwrights make clear in the above video, the action picks up about two years following where Austen's beloved 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, left off.
Cindy Im, Adam Magill, and Lauren Spencer in a scene from
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • After running off together, the youngest of the Bennet sisters, Lydia (Erika Rankin), and George Wickham have settled into a less-than-perfect marriage. Lydia often feels bored and neglected while her husband is frequently absent from their home.
  • Mary Bennet (Martha Brigham) is the middle child of the five Bennet sisters. Left to her own devices, she has taught herself how to read music, play the piano, and has devoured plenty of books. Some might think of her as the modern-day equivalent of a female nerd with great potential for fulfilling the stereotype of a spinster librarian. By far the most introverted of the infamous Bennet sisters, Mary does not play well with others, does not enjoy parties, and has a tendency to voice basic truths about the people she encounters in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable.
Adam Magill (Arthur de Bourgh) and Martha Brigham (Mary Bennet)
in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

No Christmas celebration is complete without a family crisis and, for Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, Gunderson and Melcon have concocted a doozy. While the older Bennet sisters (Jane and Elizabeth) are having a relatively easy time preparing for the festivities, everybody else is getting on Mary's nerves. She, in turn, is returning the favor. The unexpected appearance of the socially awkward Arthur de Bourgh acts as a catalyst for complete chaos.

Just as the two introverts start to discover some shared interests -- a love of science, reading, and other intellectual pursuits (Mary can deliver stunningly good advice about how to back away from a bear) -- Lydia, the eternal narcissist, throws a wrench into the works. Slipping a mysterious mash note into de Bourgh's book that is designed to spark his interest in her, she instead causes a rift between the newly-met handsome young heir and her older sister. As Lydia (who is rapidly losing what little is left of her youth, truth, and couth) continues to aggressively flirt with de Bourgh -- who has absolutely no romantic interest in her -- Arthur desperately tries to repair the damage Lydia has done to the good impression he was beginning to make on Mary.

Thomas Gorrebeeck, Adam Magill, and Joseph Patrick O'Malley appear
in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In a delicious mockery of "man talk," Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy try to boost Arthur's courage, firmly advising him to consult Mary's sisters. Just as Lydia seems to have caused the maximum amount of damage possible, Arthur's ball-busting sister arrives unexpectedly. Fearful of what might become of her if she does not receive her fair share of their mother's inheritance, Anne has decided that the only logical solution is for her to marry her brother. Completely clueless about the fact that doing so would amount to incest -- and that while Arthur may love her as a sister, he has no romantic feelings for her whatsoever -- Anne is like a dog that won't let go of a bone.

Martha Brigham, Laura Odeh, and Erika Rankin in a scene from
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Marin Theatre Company's production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly has been meticulously directed by Meredith McDonough. The play's simple design requirements (a unit set and a dozen costumes) make it an easy choice for university theatre departments, regional and community theater companies who want something new and economical to offer their audiences. With Erik Flatmo's handsome set for the large drawing room and attached library at Pemberly, the audience gets to watch Elizabeth's novelty of having a Christmas tree inside her house get laden down with decorations until it becomes a vision of holiday cheer.

With lighting by Paul Toben, costumes by Callie Floor, and sound design by Sara A. Huddleston, MTC's handsome production featured many actors familiar to Bay area audiences. Cindy Im was an ingratiating Elizabeth Darcy, while Lauren Spencer appeared as a very pregnant Jane with the wonderful Thomas Gorrebeeck as her doting husband, Mr. Bingley. Among the more focused participants were Joseph Patrick O'Malley as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Erika Rankin as the mischievous Lydia Wickham, and Laura Odeh as the annoying Anne de Bourgh who, in addition to inheriting part of her mother's estate, apparently inherited the nasty old woman's penchant for bending people to her will.

Martha Brigham (Mary Bennet) and Adam Magill) Arthur de Bourgh)
star in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Martha Brigham delivered a compelling portrayal of Mary Bennet, the evening was an absolute triumph for Adam Magill. A tall, skinny actor with a talent for bringing clueless, discombobulated young men to life, Magill's majestic height and comic timing did a lot to capture Arthur's panicked vulnerability when forced into social situations he was unable to handle.

This new comedy of [bad] manners by Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon is a delicious holiday treat that deserves a long and happy life on many stages. I hope it becomes as much of a Christmas tradition as some of "the usual suspects" and continues to enchant and bring joy to audiences for years to come. Performances of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly continue through December 23 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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While Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo's 1937 romantic comedy entitled Parfumerie inspired such popular movies as 1940's The Shop Around The Corner, 1949's In The Good Old Summertime, and 1998's You've Got Mail, it took much longer for the 1963 musical based upon Parfumerie to catch on with the general public.

Nicholas Garland (Arpad) and Joe Estlack (Sipos) in a
scene from She Loves Me (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

On April 23, 1963, when She Loves Me had its Broadway premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, a scrim got stuck during the opening number ("Good Morning, Good Day"). Walter Kerr (who, by then, had become the drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune and was notoriously not fond of musicals) was purportedly in a less than charitable mood on opening night after having had a disappointing dinner. His review was sufficiently negative to dampen box office sales. Indeed, some people remain convinced that Kerr's review killed the show's hopes for a long run.

Barbara Cook, Gino Conforti, and Daniel Massey in the
original Broadway production of She Loves Me (1963)

Over the years, however, She Loves Me went on to develop a cult-like following. Originally directed by Harold Prince (with choreography by Carol Haney), the show featured music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joe Masteroff. I was lucky enough to attend two performances of the original Broadway production, which starred Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Barbara Baxley, Jack Cassidy, and Nathaniel Frey. At a time when audiences were starting to be titillated by the sexual revolution, She Loves Me struck some people as being hopelessly outdated. What many failed to comprehend was how beautifully the show had been crafted by its creative team.

Nanci Zoppi (Ilona) and Monique Hafen (Amalia) in a
scene from She Loves Me (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

The original Broadway production ran for only 302 performances; the London premiere (whose cast included Rita Moreno) only lasted for 189. Although a BBC television version was aired in 1978, it wasn't until 1993 (when the Roundabout Theatre Company produced its first revival of She Loves Me, which ran for 354 performances) that the public rediscovered the show. A London revival (also directed by the Roundabout's team of Scott Ellis and Kathleen Marshall) ran for a year. In 2010, She Loves Me was one of the featured productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Earlier this year, the Roundabout Theatre Company revived She Loves Me with a cast headed by Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski, and Gavin Creel. Thanks to new broadcast technology, a performance was live-streamed from Studio 54 on June 30, 2016 and screened as a special event in movie theatres on December 1st.

In late November (at the same time that London's Menier Chocolate Factory was opening a revival of She Loves Me), the San Francisco Playhouse debuted its own production of the show, staged by the company's co-artistic director, Susi Damilano, with choreography by Kimberly Richards and music direction by David Aaron Brown. Working on a rotating set designed by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott (with costumes by Abra Berman and lighting by Thomas J. Munn), the production offered the perfect holiday attraction for Bay area audiences -- as well as for tourists staying near Union Square.

Monique Hafen (Amalia) and Jeffrey Brian Adams (Georg)
in a scene from She Loves Me (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Considering how, thanks to social media, many of us live in a world with little if any privacy (a world where discretion is almost unheard of), She Loves Me takes audiences back to a much more innocent time when life seemed kinder and gentler; a time when two people could maintain a long, heartfelt correspondence without knowing what their pen pal looked like.

She Loves Me has always been a very intimate show (each of the employees at Maraczek's Parfumerie has a well-defined backstory). Without a traditional chorus of singers and dancers, the show lets the shoppers who patronize the parfumerie double as the patrons of the Cafe Imperiale. While Bock and Harnick's score is filled with tender ballads ("No More Candy," "Will He Like Me?" "Dear Friend"), appealing comedy numbers ("Sounds While Selling," "Where's My Shoe?" "Vanilla Ice Cream," "A Trip to the Library") and star turns ("Tonight At Eight," "Try Me," "Grand Knowing You"), the show's 11 o'clock number ("Twelve Days to Christmas") never fails to bring down the house.

The cast of the San Francisco Playhouse production featured Michael Gene Sullivan as Mr. Maraczek, Joe Estlack as Sipos, Nicholas Garland as an especially endearing Arpad, and Brian Herndon as the stressed out maitre d' of the Cafe Imperiale. Fresh from her triumph in City of Angels, Nanci Zoppi brought poignancy and comic heft to the role of Ilona Ritter, with Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. wallowing in the appropriate level of preening narcissism for the would-be Lothario, Steven Kodaly.

Nanci Zoppi (Ilona) and Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. (Kodaly)
in a scene from She Loves Me (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the two romantic leads, Jeffrey Brian Adams brought an earnest frustration to the character of Georg Nowack while Monique Hafen's Amalia Balash grew stronger over the course of the evening. My only regret is that San Francisco Playhouse's four-piece band was producing lots of bleeps and splats on opening night. To appreciate the beauty of Don Walker's orchestrations, I recommend listening to the original Broadway album, where you'll also be able to hear Georg's "Tango Tragique" (which is cut from many productions).

If I choke up whenever I attend a performance of She Loves Me, it's not just because it is an old-fashioned love story with a happy ending. More than 50 years since its Broadway premiere, I remain in awe of the creative team's craft. This is a seamless piece of musical theatre that has stood the test of time with a winning combination of charm, humor, and dramatic integrity.

Monique Hafen (Amalia) and Jeffrey Brian Adams (Georg)
in a scene from She Loves Me (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of She Loves Me continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through January 14 (click here for tickets).

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