Monday, February 29, 2016

Back To The Sixties

On May 24, 1966, one of my favorite musicals opened on Broadway. Not only did Mame receive rave reviews from critics, Jerry Herman's musical catapulted Angela Lansbury into a new phase of her remarkable career. As we look back from a vantage point of 50 years, it becomes obvious that the success of Mame stood smack in the middle of a golden age of musical theatre.

Not only did 1966 begin with several long-running hits packing in audiences, some great talents were entertaining audiences.

During 1966, Sweet Charity (starring Gwen Verdon) was the opening production of the newly-restored Palace Theatre and the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center's hit revival of Annie Get Your Gun (starring Ethel Merman) transferred to the Broadway Theatre for a limited run. Although there were some notable musical failures (Pousse-Cafe, Chu ChemA Time for Singing, A Joyful Noise), new musicals included It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, Cabaret, The Apple Tree, Walking Happy, and I Do! I Do! (starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston).

Ironically, two musicals whose stories are set in the 1960s received back-to-back opening nights in San Francisco this month. Instead of looking back at the turbulent decade which most of us remember for its race riots, political assassinations, and the birth of the LGBT movement, these two shows offered a chance to revisit the 1960s through the lens of musical theatre.

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Many people have fond memories of 1987's Dirty Dancing, a film set in a Catskills resort which starred Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. The film was subsequently adapted for the musical stage, premiering on November 18, 2004, at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia.

Following national tours of Australia and New Zealand, productions of Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story Onstage have been staged in Hamburg, Berlin, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and London (as well as touring to theatres across the United Kingdom and Ireland).

Christopher Tierney (Johnny) and Jenny Winton (Penny) in
scene from Dirty Dancing (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Dirty Dancing's first North American tour began in Toronto in 2007 and continued on to Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles but never made it to Broadway (most likely because of the Great Recession of 2008). On September 2, 2014, a 31-city tour premiered at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Although several new leads have stepped into the roles of Johnny Castle and Baby since the show left the nation's capital, when Dirty Dancing touched down at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco it was greeted with high-pitched screams of approval from a welcoming audience with fond memories of the film.

The action takes place in the summer of 1963, several months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (followed by the assassinations of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.) and the Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964 -- which dramatically escalated America's military involvement in the Vietnam War.

For Dr. Jake Houseman (Mark Elliot Wilson) and his wife, Marjorie (Margot White), a three-week vacation at a popular resort owned by their friend, Max Kellerman (Gary Lynch), offers a welcome escape from suburban boredom as well as a chance for their two teenage daughters, Frances "Baby" Houseman (Rachel Boone) and Lisa Houseman (Alex Scolari), to meet some nice (hopefully Jewish) boys.

Gillian Abbott (Baby) and Doug Carpenter (Billy) in a
scene from Dirty Dancing (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Although Kellerman's has been a popular resort for many years (and Max was the first in the area to integrate his staff), as Bob Dylan warned, "The times they are a'changing." Instead of going into the family business, Kellerman's son, Neil (Jesse Carrey-Beaver), wants to join some of his friends on Freedom rides through the Deep South after the summer season ends. While the waiters and entertainers have strict rules against socializing with the guests, there's no stopping the wealthy widows and horny cougars who are willing to tip generously in exchange for a young man's sexual favors.

The set-up is obvious. Baby can't wait to lose her virginity and, when the star dancer's partner, Penny Johnson (Jenny Winton), gets knocked up and needs an abortion, the 17-year-old "Daddy's girl" rushes to the rescue. In addition to getting Dr. Houseman to lend her the money for Penny's abortion, Baby also agrees to learn Penny's dance routine and perform it with Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney) at the neighboring Sheldrake Hotel.

Jenny Winton (Penny), Rachel Boone (Baby), and 
Christopher Tierney (Johnny),   in a scene from
Dirty Dancing (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Smoothly directed by James Powell (with choreography by Michele Lynch), Dirty Dancing is a well-oiled entertainment machine that stays lean and tight throughout the evening. What impressed me most was the show's production values, beginning with the set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, costume design by Jennifer Irwin, and sound design by Bobby Aitken.

The production makes especially good use of Tim Mitchell's lighting coupled with Jon Driscoll's video and projection designs. The rapidly changing scenes (especially the moments when Johnny and Baby go walking through a corn field or try practicing dance lifts in the lake) were humorous and evolved with a near-cinematic flow.

Dirty Dancing is an odd musical in that its two romantic leads never sing, its score contains no original music, and its primary singers are two supporting actors (Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter) who portray members of the resort's hospitality staff. As the bandleader (Tito Suarez), Jerome Harmann-Hardeman has some nice moments. Herman Petras generates laughs as the thieving Mr. Schumacher as he practices his rendition of "Bésame Mucho" for the season's final talent show.

Evan Alexander Smith is appropriately smarmy as the horny waiter who knocked up Penny, with Alex Scolari scoring comedic points as Baby's sister, Lisa. Although the chorus does a lot of dancing, the heavy lifting is nicely handled by Christopher Tierney as the hotel's sexy lead dancer and resident heartthrob, Jenny Winton as his professional partner (Penny), and Rachel Boone as Baby.

Rachel Boone (Baby) and Christopher Tierney in a scene
from Dirty Dancing (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

Three decades after Dirty Dancing was first released in movie theatres, there is one other difference that should be noted. The financial stability of Kellerman's guests (Jake Houseman can easily lend $250 to his daughter, Moe Pressman has no problem trying to pay Johnny Castle to show his wife a good time) compared to the relative financial instability of Kellerman's entertainers and seasonal staff takes on new relevance during an election year in which income inequality has become a major issue.

Performances of Dirty Dancing continue through March 20 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here for tickets). The show is much more enjoyable than some might expect.

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If one show from the 1960s could be identified as the catalyst which changed the shape of musical theatre, it would be the anti-war Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical (with music and lyrics by Galt McDermot, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado). Hair was a groundbreaking, transgressive show which challenged audiences and sent the art form careening down a new path.

Album art from 1967's off-Broadway production of Hair

The show's premiere took place off-Broadway in October of 1967 at The Public Theatre. Because of its success (and the buzz generated by the actors going nude at the end of Act I), Hair moved uptown to the Biltmore Theatre in April of 1968 and ran for an astonishing 1,750 performances.

Unlike most of 1968's new Broadway musicals (Canterbury Tales, Darling of the Day, The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, Her First Roman, Maggie Flynn, Golden Rainbow, Zorba, and George M!) Hair was no period piece. Instead, it dealt with contemporary issues such as hippie culture, polyamory, the sexual revolution, fear of being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, recreational drug use, racism, corporate greed, the peace movement, and a growing concern for the environment (the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970).

Perhaps the biggest irony is that, while many of those issues still concern us, changes in our culture (as well as today's audiences) have transformed Hair into a period piece. Not only was the draft discontinued in 1972, the once-shocking combination of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll has gone decidedly mainstream.

Poster art from 1968's Broadway production of Hair

For its second production, Bay Area Musicals! has staged Hair at the Victoria Theatre in a manner which shows an astonishing lack of understanding of the piece. Thanks to Jon Gallo's solid musical direction, this production of Hair probably has the best singing (enhanced by Nicholas Rieker's sound design) I've heard in years. It also features an extremely well-fed group of starving hippies.

Led by Jepoy Ramos as a cuddly, ebullient Berger, the cast includes Jeffrey Brian Adams as the conflicted Claude, a buffed Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hud, an appealing Benjamin Nguyen as Woof, Ally Reardon as Sheila, Grace Ng as Jeanie, and Adrienne Walters as Crissy. Others in the tribe include Katrina McGraw, Tierra Allen, David Glazer, Indiia Wilmott, and Peter Dakota Molof.

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hud in Hair (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Despite the efforts of director/scenery and lighting designer Jon Tracy, producer/choreographer Matthew McCoy, and costume designer Pasquale Spezzano, this staging of Hair seemed like an over-choreographed concert marking the season finale of a summer at theatre camp. In a moment of shock and awe, I found myself laughing out loud at the balletic ridiculousness of Claude's interpretive dance at the end of the evening.

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Claude in Hair (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Judging by the sparse set elements and limited costumes, I'm going to assume that budgetary restraints contributed to the lack of certain costumes normally used in a production of Hair. Unfortunately, those costumes are critically important to the show's rowdy spirit and in-your-face sense of humor.
  • There are several scenes in which the tribe's hippies interact with authority figures (represented by their parents and members of "the older generation"). Without those costumes, there was no sense of any standoff between the generations. To make matters worse, because of the lighting, it was nearly impossible to distinguish actors representing one generation against another.
  • When Peter Dakota Molof appeared in drag (wearing a bathrobe and wig), he was never identified to the audience as Margaret Mead. I can't help but wonder if anyone in the cast even knows about the famous cultural anthropologist and why her sudden appearance onstage to check out a group of hippies and give them her approval would have been so riotously funny in 1967.
  • The black woman singing "Happy Birthday, Abie, Baby" lacked a stove pipe hat and fake beard to give the audience any indication that she was mocking Abraham Lincoln.
  • In the original "White Boys" number, three black women wore a costume which mocked the costumes worn by The Supremes. When they moved apart, the audience discovered that, instead of three matching outfits, three actors had been stuffed into one oversized costume.
Emmaretta Marks, Melba Moore & Lorri Davis
performing "White Boys" in the original cast of Hair

Other than a gratuitous reference to cell phones at the top of Act II, there was no sense of any threat to the status quo, no sense of any threat to the audience's sensibilities, and no understanding of the bone-chilling fear so many young men felt at the thought of being drafted. As I chatted with several other baby boomers during intermission (who had not only seen the original production but had lived through the Sixties), it was obvious that some of the Millennials on BAM's creative team were sorely missing the mark.

The Tribe in Hair (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Performances of Hair continue at the Victoria Theatre through March 12 (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Thinking Outside Reality's Box

Released in 1940, Pinocchio (Walt Disney's second animated feature film) includes some sequences that could easily terrify small children (little boys being transformed into donkeys on Pleasure Island, the escape from the belly of Monstro the Whale).

Of course, many sequences of Disney animation are more benign. Consider the following musical number from 1951's Alice in Wonderland:

Animation allows fantasies to vividly come to life in a manner similar to many of our dreams. Besotted with artistic depictions of magical realism, they include behaviors that defy common sense accompanied by visions that defy basic science. As someone who has always been a heavy dreamer, my nighttime reveries range all over the place, mirroring the wild theatricality and imaginative freedom to be found in such fantasy films as 1969's Fellini Satyricon and 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Just last week, I found myself stranded on a sand bar populated by giant crocodiles. The only way for me to survive was to jab a pole into a pregnant female crocodile's vagina (duh, I know they lay eggs, but this is Dreamland), extract its young, and feed the baby reptile to another hungry crocodile. Thankfully, I made it to shore before awakening.
  • Such freewheeling adventures are easier to create in film than on stage. Happily, there are occasions when one can experience storytelling in a manner that allows the impossible to seem commonplace. Sometimes, there are opportunities for nuance in the midst of chaos. 
  • At other times (like this super-ripped Korean statue of Jesus), nuance seems unnecessary.
Jesus on steroids (a new form of magical realism)

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Don't let the lukewarm reaction to the new film by the Coen brothers deter you from spending a delightful 90 minutes on the back lots of old Hollywood. While Hail, Caesar! lifts the curtain that hides a lot of the behind-the-scenes mischief in various sound studios, the script is filled with delicious moments and the kind of magical thinking that can make life funnier than art.

The film also includes some wonderful cameos from gifted actors like Wayne Knight and Frances McDormand as well as a stunning comedic performance from Alden Ehrenreich. While old pros like Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Dolph Lundgren, and Ralph Fiennes are on hand, their work is matched with wicked glee by the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, and Robert Picardo (as a sarcastic Hollywood rabbi). The film's greatest scene stealer is Tilda Swinton, portraying identical twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on Channing Tatum's hilarious musical number (filled with sexual innuendo and the funniest climax ever designed for a troupe of tap dancing sailors), Hail, Caesar! contains numerous sly jabs at the entertainment industry that range from laugh-out-loud moments to those best appreciated with a knowing smirk. This is a film to be slowly savored rather than swallowed in one greedy gulp.

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From narrative fiction to costume design, from composing music to writing code, one of the most powerful tools at a creative person's disposal is a simple question: "What if?" Not only does it lead one to think in new directions, once a possibility looms on the horizon, it doesn't take long before it starts developing permutations on a theme.

With an understanding of the mathematics behind permutations, think about how a kaleidoscope uses a combination of objects to create a never-ending supply of visual patterns.

With so many options at a person's disposal, the trick is to boil down the possibilities to a few essentials and examine a limited number of permutations. That's exactly what Dipika Guha has done in her stunning new play, Mechanics of Love, which recently received its world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater. Directed with a wonderful sensitivity and comic insight by Jessa Brie Moreno, Guha's four characters are:

Francesca (Luisa Frasconi), a ballerina who forgets nothing but, because she has suffered a strange disease, now has an artificial spine which prevents her from performing.

Luisa Frasconi (Francesca) and Carl Holvick (Glen) in
a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Glen (Carl Holvick), a man she meets and falls in love with. Like one of Gary Larson's ditzy Irish setters, Glen has as remarkable capacity to forget everything once he goes to sleep. In fact, he becomes so excited about meeting Francesca that he impulsively marries her. There's just one problem.

Faizi (Lauren Spencer), Glen's compulsively busy wife who has tried to cope with his eccentricities but is reaching her limit. However, upon meeting the very attractive Francesca, Faizi realizes that things might not be so bad after all. Perhaps this could lead to a throuple!

Luisa Frasconi (Francesca) and Lauren Spencer (Faizi)
in a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Georg (Damien Seperi), the mechanic who has been fixing Faizi's car. Georg likes to work with his hands. Georg likes Faizi. Georg likes to put his hands to work on Faizi. Until he meets Francesca.

Lauren Spencer (Faizi) and Damien Spencer (Georg) in
a scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

In her program note, Crowded Fire’s new artistic director, Mina Morita, writes:
"I am thrilled to introduce Dipika Guha‘s incredibly imaginative work to our audience. Written with a finely tuned and absurd lilt, wry poetry, and unnerving humor, her plays break open character stereotypes piece by piece to reveal the shared and vulnerable underbelly of our humanity. She creates worlds that exist beyond the traditional psychological realism of most American theatre, and employs the poetry of unexpected pairings and motives to capture a more truthful human experience.

Love is that intangible force that has assured the growth of humankind and our survival, driven the creation of entire industries, and caused artists to go mad trying to capture its essence. In Mechanics of Love, Guha unveils ‘a mythical European city, pressed up against a communist state’ that has recently fallen. The citizens are suddenly awakened to the possibility of being anyone, or falling in love with anyone... and everyone! It is a moment when cultural norms are being rewritten."
Georg (Damien Seperi) and Franesca (Luisa Frasconi) share a
sudden attraction in Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Working on a clever unit set designed by Deanna L. Zibello (with costumes by Keiko Shimosato), the four-actor ensemble achieves something that is extremely difficult to pull off in contemporary theatre. By letting Guha's script breathe at a natural pace as her characters amiably switch neuroses, parenting responsibilities, and living arrangements, the audience is drawn into an intimate (and quite hilarious) comedy firmly rooted in the Theatre of the Absurd.

And yet, as Guha examines the various romantic permutations possible with a combination of four characters, standard patterns of infatuation, jealousy, recrimination, and casual sex lose their contemporary baggage. Possessiveness and territoriality are replaced with once unthinkable possibilities which are as appealing as what one might see in a kaleidoscope.

Carl Holvick (Glen) and Damien Seperi (Georg) in a
scene from Mechanics of Love (Photo by: Pak Han)

Crowded Fire Theater's production benefits immensely from Beth Hersh's lighting design and the sound design by Cliff Caruthers. What I found utterly amazing about Mechanics of Love was its total lack of pretentiousness and the fact that Guha's writing allows her characters to explore themselves and their desires with a remarkable amount of grace.

By the end of this charming one-act comedy, the audience genuinely cares about the potential happiness of each character (a rare achievement in an absurdist play). Performances of Mechanics of Love continue through March 12 at Thick House (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cannon Fodder For The War Boom

After shuttering Alert & Oriented Medical Transcription Services at the end of 2015, I started off the new year with a project I had been stalling for a long, long time. Having acquired a new all-purpose printer, I finally had a machine at my disposal that made scanning old photographs much easier than before. I also had about 15 albums of family photos ranging from 1919 to the present.

Among the pictures were photographs from the years I worked at a YMCA sailing camp run by the Greater Providence YMCA. As I scanned them, I was amazed at how many names and faces I could remember from 50 years ago.

It only took a second to recognize the lean, athletic body of the strapping young blond who had once headed the camp's boating and canoeing program. There he was, standing in a canoe with a paddle in his hands, wearing a turned-down sailor cap with that goofy smile on his face.

Colonel Irving Heymont (center)

Although my Uncle Irving was one of the American soldiers who helped to process nearly 6,000 displaced persons (mostly Jews) at a Nazi concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany following World War II, Chuck Pfaffman was the first person I knew who had died in the Vietnam War. At the time, there was scant information about his death but today, with the help of the Internet, it only took a few quick searches to discover that, as a member of the USS Coral Sea's Grumman VAW 116  E-2A squadron, he died on April 9, 1970 after being shot down while flying over water near North Vietnam.

A Grumman VAW 116  E-2A Plane

Shortly after I moved from Providence, Rhode Island to San Francisco in 1972, I was visited by a young man I had known in the formative days of the Rhode Island Gay Alliance. Steve had been a student at Brown University who believed that his only option after graduation was to join the military. When his ship docked in San Francisco and we were able to spend a day together, his body may have been the same, but his mind and soul had been crushed during training.

The entertainment industry has always had a soft spot for war stories. From Homer's Iliad to Shakespeare's Coriolanus; from the silent film era's Wings (1927) to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), audiences have been gripped by the adventures of military heroes and the tragedy of war.

In the spring of 1963 I attended a performance of Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, that was directed by Jerome Robbins with Anne Bancroft heading a cast that included Zohra Lampert, Barbara Harris, and Gene Wilder. Over the years, I've seen numerous pieces of anti-war entertainment ranging from Joan Littlewood's musical revue entitled Oh, What A Lovely War (1964) to Hair (1968); from Bette Midler's poignant film, For The Boys (1991,) to The Clown and the Fuhrer (2007).

Though it might be nice if there were no more wars, we will always have war stories ranging from spectacles involving the use of heavy weaponry to the more human tragedies created by war. Someday I hope to see a performance of Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes that was first performed in Athens in 411 B.C.  As Wikipedia notes:
"It is a comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace -- a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is notable for being an early exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society."
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For the past few months, Chris King's 12-minute film entitled Birthday has been appearing in shorts programs around the film festival circuit. The film starts off with a U.S. Marine (Chris Gouchoe) and his wife (Mandy Moody) communicating via video chat. He's due to come home from the Middle East in 43 days. She can't wait to be reunited with him.

Several days later, while out on patrol, the man loses three limbs after triggering an IED. His wife is flown to an overseas hospital to help him through several months of surgery and rehabilitation. After being fitted for prosthetic legs and a mechanical arm, he slowly adapts and gains mobility until the couple are finally able to fly home. When they arrive at their house, the soldier's parents are waiting for him with a birthday cake.

As the couple work together to help the man heal, King's film shows him learning how to eat pasta salad with a prosthetic hand, training on a recumbent bicycle, and donning a unique Christmas gift: a tee-shirt that reads "Combat Wounded Marine: Some Assembly Required." Birthday is an extremely touching film which ends on a note of optimism as the young man is seen helping to rehabilitate other soldiers who have lost limbs.  As King explains:
"The original inspiration for Birthday was a photo I saw online almost three years ago of an unknown, severely wounded young Marine. I don’t remember how I came across the picture or who the Marine was, but the expression on his damaged face haunted me. Weeks later, I decided to track him down. I ultimately found him and we ended up speaking on the phone several times. He was such an amazingly positive young man. He became my first military consultant and research interview for Birthday and the constant driving force behind my 'need' to get this film made. Almost 2-1/2 years later, this previously unknown Marine received the Medal of Honor. Most know him now as Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter of South Carolina."

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Politicians keep starting wars. Military recruiters keep luring idealistic young people into their ranks. The inevitable cycle of death and destruction is filled with the collateral damage of a voracious war machine that (like the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors) demands constant feeding.

In 2013, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented the world premiere of The Unfortunates, an anti-war musical which recently received its Bay area premiere from American Conservatory Theater. The play’s storytelling method (using a combination of gospel, blues, and hip hop) is based on the idea of a world at war. As Casey Lee Hurt (who the creative team regards as their “idea distillery”) explains:
“War and music are two things that, for better or for worse, America has always had. And there's no question that music has been an outcry, a response to injustice. We sing in the hard times in the midst of tragedy, looking for solace. But we also look for a catalyst to change things for the better. World War I is where a lot of our influences are drawn from, but we're trying not to put it specifically in that time period. The reason for that is because the enemy in this play is not a regime. It's fear. For us, that's the most important element. Fear is the thing that every generation faces. And we want that to be transparent and true throughout."

Directed by Shana Cooper with choreography by Erika Chong Shuch, The Unfortunates was created by Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef. The 90-minute show plays out on a unit set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer with lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound designed by Brendan Aanes.

Ramiz Monsef is General Goodtimes in The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The evening begins with a giant recruiting poster ("Uncle Sam Wants You") setting the stage for a speech by General Goodtimes (Ramiz Monsef) urging young men to seek adventure in the military. Three goofballs -- Coughlin (Jon Beavers), CJ (Christopher Livingston), and Big Joe (Ian Merrigan) -- rise to the challenge with the kind of macho stupidity that never leads to anything good.

Christopher Livingston (CJ), Ian Merrigan (Big Joe), and
 Jon Beavers (Coughlin) in a scene from The Unfortunates 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It doesn't take long before CJ and Coughlin have fallen in the line of duty, leaving Big Joe to love and defend his new girlfriend, Rae (Taylor Iman Jones), a beautiful young woman whose hands are mysteriously tucked behind her back. As more and more gullible men (including Amy Lizardo as Handsome Carl) are inducted into battle, those left behind must deal with the tragic effects of a pernicious plague that has been killing people in great numbers.

Monsef also appears as Stack, a corrupt doctor who is supposed to treat victims of the plague but belongs to corporate forces that refuse to make the necessary drugs available at affordable prices. With Stack (also played by Monsef) betting Big Joe that he can't save Rae's life after she has acquired the plague, a moral battle ensues between a hero with good intentions and a medical establishment willing to run out the clock on his girlfriend's life.

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe in a scene from The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There are numerous reasons why I didn't take to The Unfortunates with the same level of the enthusiasm as the Millennials seated around me.
  • Thanks to Katherine O'Neill's highly imaginative costumes, there were moments when it felt like I was watching a mash-up of Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon and Everyman (a Medieval morality play about the struggle between good and evil that was first performed in the 15th century).
  • Although the musical numbers were energetically staged, I found most of their lyrics to be appallingly trite.
  • For those with the luxury of being older, sadder, and wiser (especially people who survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the Republican chicanery it fostered), it's too late for another well-intentioned piece of agitprop theatre to bring back the dead or destroy the war machine.
  • To my mind, the strongest assets of the production were neither the music nor the script, but Erika Chong Shuch's superb choreography and an exceptional performance by Eddie Lopez as KoKo the Klown.
Eddie Lopez as Koko the Klown in The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Other members of the ensemble included Lauren Hart as Roxy, Danielle Herbert as Madame, and Arthur Wise as a preacher. Performances of The Unfortunates continue at the Strand Theatre through April 10 (click here to order tickets).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Waiting For The Dramatic Payoff

Anyone who has sat through a performance of Samuel Beckett's absurdist comedy entitled Waiting For Godot (or Richard Wagner's romantic tragedy, Tristan und Isolde) knows that extreme patience is a prerequisite for being able to enjoy these works. Wikipedia's description of patience reads as follows:
"Patience (or forbearing) is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on negative annoyance/anger; or exhibiting forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties. Patience is the level of endurance one can have before negativity. It is also used to refer to the character trait of being steadfast."
Anyone who has been a parent or caregiver knows the value of patience. Anyone who has tried to teach a youngster how to play a musical instrument knows the value of patience. Among the more surprising quotes about patience are the following:
  • "Genius is eternal patience." (Michelangelo).
  • "Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." (John Quincy Adams).
  • "The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it." (Arnold H. Glasow).
  • "Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet." (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).
  • "Patience is not just about waiting for something ... it's how you wait, or your attitude while waiting." (Joyce Meyer).
  • "Patience is a virtue, and I'm learning patience. It's a tough lesson." (Elon Musk).
And then, of course, there is Tevye's response to his nagging wife in Fiddler on the Roof: "Patience, Golde, As it says in the Good Book: Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave."

Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof

While some theatregoers assume that a keen eye, a sensitive ear, and a wicked wit are prerequisites for a critic, they forget to include patience as a key component in critical thinking. I often find myself seated in a darkened auditorium patiently waiting for a playwright to let his characters deliver the necessary exposition to lay the foundation for his story, to let the drama's emotional tension build to a critical tipping point, or to have his protagonist achieve a moment of redemption.

Sometimes the wait is worth it; on many occasions it is not. The reasons why a production fails to reach its full potential have everything to do with casting, craft, and a perverse kind of artistic combustion. Two productions recently brought that challenge home to Bay area audiences with startling clarity.

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On June 15, 2013, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of jazz musician Terence Blanchard's "opera in jazz" entitled Champion -- about boxing's emotionally conflicted welterweight and middleweight champion, Emile Griffith. The premiere received a good deal of coverage in the musical press because of its blending of jazz (a uniquely American art form) with opera and the controversy surrounding its subject, who had been the subject of a 2005 documentary entitled Ring Of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. The following month, Griffith died.

A versatile composer who has worked on numerous film scores, Blanchard obviously didn't feel limited by the traditions of either art form. There are times when his music has a bluesy undertone that well suits his portrait of the aged Griffith as a tired, guilt-ridden man struggling to cope with the symptoms of dementia pugilistica. The opera's second act contains a beautifully written aria for Griffith's mother, Emelda (Karen Slack), two solid quartets, and a stunning aria for Emile's manager, Howie Albert (sung here and at the world premiere with great poignancy by Robert Orth).

Karen Slack as Emelda Griffith in Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

With Nicole Paiment conducting and Brian Staufenbiehl directing, San Francisco's Opera Parallèle partnered with SFJAZZ to produce the West Coast premiere of Blanchard's opera. Working on a minimal set designed by Dave Dunning and lit by Matthew Antaky, the production featured costumes by Christine Crook, choreography by Reginald Savage, and projections by David Murakami.

Oddly enough, both acts began without instrumentation or singing. The opera started off with Joe Orrach performing a wordless solo as a boxer building a rhythm while training on a speed (punching) bag. Orrach returned at the top of Act II, dancing back and forth as he practiced throwing punches until he started to build a new rhythm while jumping rope.

The anchor of Blanchard's opera is not the young, athletic Emile (handsomely sung by Kenneth Kellogg), but the the old, retired boxer (Arthur Woodley) who is being taken care of by his adopted son and caretaker, Luis Rodrigo Griffith (Andres Ramirez). Struggling to cope with his growing dementia, this Emile has trouble remembering where he left his shoe and trying to pull himself together for the critical moment in which he will finally get to meet Benny Paret's son, Benny Jr.

Arthur Woodley portrays the elder Emile Griffith in Champion
(Photo by: Bill Evans)

Griffith's mind keeps flashing back to earlier days in St. Thomas, where his Cousin Blanche (Aisha Campbell) would beat him and punish him by making him hold up cinder blocks with his arms. As he grew, Emile found happier times working in a hat factory before traveling to New York to meet his estranged mother.

Kenneth Kellogg portrays the young Emile Griffith
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

Once he arrived in New York, Emile had to find a way to earn a living. His mother's introduction to Howie Albert (Robert Orth) in the hope of getting her son a job in his hat factory took an unexpected turn when the businessman realized that the kid was built like a brick shithouse and introduced him to the world of professional boxing.

Kenneth Kellogg as young Emile Griffin in Champion
(Photo by: Steve DiBartolomeo)

As the elder Griffith looks back on his life, he recalls his rapid rise from an unknown boxer to a budding champion who likes to wear flashy clothes and flirt with women. His flashbacks soon focus on the date of the fateful weigh-in prior to his March 24, 1962 championship fight, when Paret patted him on the ass and taunted Emile by calling him a maricón.

Robert Orth, Victor Ryan Robertson, Karen Slack, and Kenneth Kellogg
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans) 

Act II heads into darker territory as Griffith is haunted by his struggle to accept his sexuality. In one scene, he clumsily attempts to make contact with a potential trick in a gay bar, but gets cold feet and leaves before anything can happen. In another, he is beaten by homophobic thugs in the alley outside a gay bar.

Kenneth Kellogg, Arthur Woodley, and Karen Slack
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans) 

The biggest problem with Blanchard's opera is partly due to Michael Cristofer's libretto, which must paint the elder Griffith as confused, fearful, and occasionally incoherent -- a shadow of his former self. As a result, the first act tends to be a hard slog through the exposition that leads up to the climactic moment when Emile knocks Benny Paret's lights out. Woodley's touching portrayal grows increasingly pitiful as he keeps singing with a rare dramatic authority.

As the younger Emile, Kenneth Kellogg received strong support from Chabrelle Williams as his wife, Sadie Donastrog Griffith; Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret; and Mark Hernandez as the Ring announcer. Looking like a middle-aged Bette Midler, Michelle Rice had some nice moments as the owner of the first gay bar Griffith visits.

///Conductor Nicole Paiment with Kenneth Kellogg during
rehearsals of Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

I tip my hat to Nicole Paiment for collaborating with SFJAZZ to produce the West Coast premiere of Champion. Two underappreciated contemporary American operas which might resonate with Opera Parallèle's audience in future seasons are The Postman Always Rings Twice (by Stephen Paulus) which received its world premiere from Opera Theatre of St. Louis on June 17, 1982 and the bitingly sarcastic Where's Dick? (by Michael Korie and Stewart Wallace) which received its world premiere from Texas Opera Theatre on May 24, 1989 (click here for a slide show from that production). In fact, I'd be willing to bet that Where's Dick? has much greater relevance to the current cultural scene than it did 27 years ago.

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In recent years, several playwrights have attempted a dramatic version of time travel after intermission. While Act I is spent with a group of characters in one era and location, Act II may find the same characters (or their likenesses) appearing in a totally different world.

In 2012, Shotgun Players presented the full-length version of Truffaldino Says No (Ken Slattery's 10-minute play which was originally written for Playground). A rowdy farce about a commedia dell'arte character in the 16th century who flees the family business in Venice, Italy (only to find himself time traveling to a sitcom set in Venice Beach, California), the audience's ability to enjoy Slattery's craft was substantially enhanced by a knowledge of theatre history. In his program note, director M. Graham Smith wrote:
"Every worthy comedy must grapple with a consequential struggle. What happens when children don't want to follow in their parents' footsteps? Is it really possible to reinvent oneself in a New World and escape one's roots?"
CentralWorks recently presented the world premiere of David Weisberg's Totem and Taboo, with Smith directing an ensemble of four actors whose characters' names were easily recognizable to Baby Boomers and those who have enjoyed reruns of The Honeymooners (a beloved 1950s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph).

A frightfully labored piece of writing (as I exited the theatre I heard one woman loudly ask her friend "How do you spell 'pretentious?'"), Weisberg bit off a lot more than he could chew, wrapping much of his dialogue in embarrassing platitudes of political correctness. In his program note, Weisberg writes:
"Sigmund Freud and The Honeymooners? A rising tide lifts all boats? Pearl Harbor was an inside job? How to be fat without looking fat? The conspiracy to take down the Twin Towers? People are not rational, they're tribal? An organism in its environment, nothing more nothing less? Fundamentalists are reproducing like rabbits? A house-husband, the hero of our time? Mindfulness and genetic testing for social transformation? Olympic weightlifting is an art? The Silicon Valley libertarian masters of the internet economy? Animism, magic, and the omnipotence of thoughts? The prohibition against eating the totem animal? The compulsion to repeat? The concept of the disinterested individual is a liberal fantasy? Libidinal bonds are far stronger than rational agreements? The death sentence is the world's most perfect poem? The self-delusion of an addict? The massive unrelenting war machine? A tide of blood? Thanatos, god of strife and hate? The humanities are doomed? Every parent is a hypocrite? We never really know who our father is? All stories are dream stories? For the answer to these questions, and more, stay tuned and follow the raccoon."
Bob Greene as Ralph in Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Act I of Totem and Taboo starts off with Ralph (Bob Greene), a stay-at-home Dad and freelance writer specializing in philosophy, trying to hold the attention of his 17-year-old, smartphone-addicted son, Toby (Caleb Cabrera). They are interrupted by a visit from their newly-divorced, new neighbor named Trixie (April Green), who has brought a gift for Ralph's wife. Alice (Deb Fink) is a workaholic genetic biologist who has been helpful to Trixie following her divorce. While the horny Trixie is easily impressed by Toby's lean, muscular body, Ralph and Toby each have a secret they need to share.
  • A former university professor, Ralph has evolved into a pill-popping, stay-at-home house husband, tasked with raising his 17-year-old son while his well-compensated wife brings home the bacon. In between juggling his household chores and parental responsibilities, Ralph has also managed to complete his scathing critique of liberalism (and its failure to fulfill the promise of a better world) entitled Opting Out of the Social Contract. Unfortunately, no publisher has shown any interest in his book. However, the college application he submitted to Oxford University in his son's name (without asking for Toby's permission) has been accepted. Toby can now have the quality education that Ralph always wished he could have had. 
  • The entrepreneurial Toby, however, is aching to tell his father about his plan to skip college altogether and become a personal trainer (an occupation which cannot be outsourced overseas or replaced by a mobile app or robotic device). Unfortunately, Ralph's inability to listen to anything but the sound of his own voice has been a barrier to Toby being able to access his college education funds.
Caleb Cabrera is 17-year-old Toby in Totem and Taboo
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

When Ralph's painkillers trigger a hallucinatory episode, he finds himself in a dream state resembling a segment of The Honeymooners. While his paranoia convinces Ralph that his closest friends are trying to kill him, his boorish need to dominate every situation perfectly matches the behavior of Ralph Kramden. To make matters worse, his son has been transformed into Kramden's buddy, Ed Norton. With Alice and Trixie in the midst of a hot lesbian love affair, Ralph suddenly finds himself cast as the defendant in a rigged trial where Trixie is the severely biased judge.

April Green is Trixie Norton and Deb Fink is Alice Kramden
in a scene from Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Will Toby get his money? Will Alice and Trixie fall in love? Will Ralph fall victim to cannibalism? The more important question for Epstein is: Will anybody in the audience care?
  • If Ralph's shenanigans were embodied in a lovable buffoon like Family Guy's dim-witted Peter Griffin (who has frequent flashbacks about his misdeeds), the brevity of each incident might work.
  • If Epstein's Ralph had been an irascible but slightly lovable bully like Ralph Kramden (whose personality could be tolerated for a half hour), his play might work.
But with such heavyhanded writing that was not the case. Two hours with a raging putz like Epstein's version of Ralph Kramden wears thin very quickly. On opening night, the fact that Ralph is an insufferably narcissistic asshole was compounded by Bob Greene's blustery performance (which resembled a sputtering Danny DeVito struggling not to go up on his lines).

Ed Norton (Caleb Cabrera) and Ralph Kramden (Bob Greene)
are loyal members of the Order of the Raccoon
in Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Caleb Cabrera shone while doubling as Norton and Ralph's alienated yet impassioned teenager who knows that his future cannot be the past in which his father chooses to live. Deb Fink and April Green scored strongly as the play's feminist voices of reason. But, despite a lot of hard work by an earnest cast,  the dramatic payoff for this strained comedy never really arrived. The overall sensation was of some clumsy comedy writing rather than a fierce Freudian farce.