Friday, April 7, 2017

The Chosen Ones

You see them at cattle call auditions and waiting outside Home Depot. Whether they're hoping to score a slot as a dancer in an upcoming musical or a day's wages doing manual labor, the number of people desperate to be picked is usually much greater than the number of available positions.

Sometimes being picked can be a rare stroke of luck. Shirley MacLaine was understudying the role of Gladys Hotchkiss in The Pajama Game when Carol Haney broke her ankle. Barely a month after the show had opened at the St. James Theatre on May 13, 1954, MacLaine arrived at the stage door just in time to get into Haney's costume before the show started. As luck would have it, the powerful Hollywood film producer, Hal Wallis, was in the audience. He liked what he saw, signed MacLaine to a contract with Paramount Pictures, and the rest is history. MacLaine's latest film, The Last Word, recently opened in theatres as the actress approached her 83rd birthday.

Sometimes being the chosen one can have devastating consequences (especially for women like "Emily Doe,"who was raped in January 2015 by a Stanford University varsity swimmer named Brock Allen Turner). At other times, what seemed like a chance at some temporary work can turn into an extended period of employment that makes fierce demands on a person. Unfortunately, there is no way the chosen can anticipate how wildly circumstances might careen out of control.
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    The Winter (which will be screened at the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival) marks the feature film debut of its director, Emiliano Torres. Set on an estancia (small farm) in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina, the story unfolds against a background of vast panoramas, brutal weather, and the kind of all-male society whose inhabitants have little to no education. In the long periods between sheep shearing days, there is little to do other than menial chores. As a result, the arrival of an occasional prostitute is cause for celebration. As Torres explains:
    "The western part of southern Santa Cruz is unique, arid and infinite plateaus that give the impression of being in the middle of the desert. The rural work is the least known aspect of Patagonia, stories of men living and dying isolated from the world, men who defend their own territory bounded by the wires of a landowner that they sometimes do not even know. The small human tragedies acquire an enormous character there. Everything is difficult, distances are eternal, and survival is an everyday task. Everything becomes violent, cruel, but also essential in that context. It was the ideal scenario to describe the confrontation between two men marked by loneliness and uprooting." 
    Poster art for The Winter

    It's hard to imagine a lot of interpersonal drama gaining a toehold in such a vast panoramic landscape. But The Winter is a surprisingly suspenseful story about the kind of men whose repressed emotions, crushing loneliness, and lack of social skills put them at a particular disadvantage. An old foreman named Evans (Alejandro Sieveking) has devoted many years of his life to managing the farm. After Evans is forced into sudden retirement with no savings, no support network, and no plans for the future, he is simply dropped off at the nearest bus route. The old man attempts to visit his daughter and her family, but quickly realizes there is no future for him there.

    Alejandro Sieveking as Evans in a scene from The Winter

    Jara (Cristian Salguero) is the young laborer who eventually replaces Evans as the foreman. In order to get hired, Jara was smart enough not to disclose the fact that he was married or that his wife was pregnant. When he first arrives at the estancia, Jara may seem quiet and have a tendency to keep to himself, whittling animal figures in his spare time. But he is constantly alert to the people around him, carefully observing the human dynamics at play. Not the least bit interested in fighting or getting drunk, he shows a surprising capacity for defusing tensions among the estancia's hired hands.

    Cristian Salguero as Jara in a scene from The Winter

    With Evans no longer on the property, Jara heads into the lonely winter months taking on more and more responsibility for running the farm and keeping its animals safe from poachers. When his wife and child come to visit him for a weekend, word quickly gets back to the estancia's owner, who is not pleased with the news. Soon, however, a strange kind of violence starts to invade Jara's lonely world.

    In casting the roles of Evans and Jara, Torres found two actors with very different techniques to fill roles which require a great deal of internal acting. As he explains:
    "By simple intuition I traveled to Santiago de Chile to interview men who could interpret the role of the old foreman of the estancia. Alejandro Sieveking (one of the most important actors and playwrights in Chile) was the last actor I saw. He was fascinated with the script; his playwright's eyes were stronger than his approach as an actor. His training was strictly theatrical and I needed an absolutely cinematic performance. He gave himself up to the process as only the great ones do, with enormous confidence and commitment." 
    Cristian Salguero as Jara in a scene from The Winter
    "Cristian is a true cinematographic animal, wonderful naturalness and time management. It was as if he had made films all his life. This tension between generations and completely different styles of performance was both functional and confrontational between the characters in the script. Cristian's extreme realism and Alexander's refined technique confronted each other like the characters in the story. Alexander’s interpretation became deprived of realism while Cristian’s grew in technique and expressive force."
    With a musical score by Cyril Morin and exceptional work by cinematographer Ramiro Civita, The Winter is a slow-simmering film in which the desolate surroundings of a remote estancia in southern Patagonia play host to festering resentments and shocking acts of violence. The surprise ending provides an eerie sign of the times in which we live. Here's the trailer:

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    Few fans of the American musical theatre are familiar with the work of lyricist and librettist John La Touche, whose contributions include the lyrics to Vernon Duke's "Taking A Chance on Love" and Leonard Bernstein's "The Best of All Possible Worlds" (from 1956's Candide). Among the Broadway musicals La Touche contributed to are:
    Allison F. Rich and Chris Vettel in a scene from
    New Girl in Town (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

    In 1955, producer David Merrick began work on a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's only comedy (Ah, Wilderness), which had a working title of A Connecticut Summer. Unfortunately, on August 7, 1956, his lyricist (La Touche) died of a heart attack. Impressed by what he had heard during a performance of New Girl in Town (a musical he had seen during its rocky out-of-town tryout), he turned to that show's composer and lyricist for help.

    Judith Miller as Marthy in New Girl in Town (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

    With Bob Merrill's music and lyrics, Take Me Along opened on October 22, 1959 at the Shubert Theatre and ran for 448 performances with a cast that included Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, Robert Morse, Una Merkel, Arlene Galonka, and Valerie Harper. Merrill went on to write the music and lyrics for 1961's Carnival! as well as 1966's ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's and 1967's Henry, Sweet Henry. He contributed two songs ("Motherhood" and "Elegance") as well as some extra help with lyrics for Jerry Herman's 1964 megahit, Hello, Dolly! and provided the lyrics to composer Jule Styne's songs for 1964's Funny Girl, 1971's Prettybelle, and 1972's Sugar.

    Although New Girl in Town opened on May 4, 1957 at the 46th Street Theatre and ran for 431 performances, it is primarily remembered for the performances by Gwen Verdon, Thelma Ritter, and its choreography by Bob Fosse. Starting at the 2:02 mark in the following clip, you can listen to original cast member Harvey Evans talk about the show, watch a clip of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse performing "The Pony Dance," and learn why the creative team at San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon was able to convert a two-act musical into a one-act, 95-minute show so seamlessly.

    42nd Street Moon is currently staging New Girl in Town, the show which marked Bob Merrill's Broadway debut. Directed by Daren A. C. Carollo (with music direction by Dave Dobrusky and choreography by Kelly Cooper), a trimmed-down script keeps the action moving very well.

    Allison F. Rich as Anna in New Girl in Town (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

    Based on O'Neill's 1921 play, Anna Christie, New Girl in Town tells the story of a young prostitute whose father has been absent from her life for far too long. At the age of five, Anna (Allison F. Rich) was sent to live with relatives on a farm near St. Paul, Minnesota where she was raped by her horny male cousins. Having recently recovered from an illness for which she had to be hospitalized, the 20-year-old girl has traveled to New York in the hope of reuniting with her father (a barge captain) and trying to get a new start in life.

    Her father is a happy drunk who still imagines his daughter to be a sweet young thing, all pure and innocent. Anna is nothing of the kind, and neither is Chris (Chris Vettel), who has been living with his common-law wife, Marthy (Judith Miller) for the past few years. Marthy (who knows a working girl when she sees one) is easily threatened by the presence of Chris's pretty daughter and fears that Chris will soon dump her.

    While heading to Boston, the crew on Chris's barge spots five men in the water who have survived a recent shipwreck and haul them on board. For one of the rescued seamen, Matt (Joshua Marx), Anna appears like an angel or mermaid. He falls hard for her, even though Anna's well-earned cynicism keeps pushing him away.

    Joshua Marx as Matt in New Girl in Town (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

    Upon their return to New York, Chris and Matt become media darlings and receive free tickets to attend a local ball. Unfortunately, both men want to take Anna as their date, which leaves Marthy in a huff. Having gotten her hands on one of Chris's tickets to the event, Marthy tries to act all proper, pretending that she never touches alcohol. Soon enough, however, she's drunk as a skunk and accuses Anna of being a low-life streetwalker.

    In typical male fashion, Marthy's accusations not only make Matt jealous and insecure (reminding Anna of the abuse she suffered from too many men in Minnesota), he also starts to get rough and tries to dominate her. Knowing where his behavior could lead, Anna breaks away from Matt and goes for a long walk during which she meets a pleasant farmer from Staten Island.

    Since the new management team of Daren A. C. Carollo and Daniel Thomas has taken over the artistic reins at 42nd Street Moon from its founder (Greg MacKellan), more resources are obviously being lavished on production values. Mark Mendelson's multi-platformed waterfront set handsomely serves its purpose by allowing multiple playing areas as well as a dark, wooden setting to match the atmosphere of O'Neill's story. With costumes by Bethany Deal, the energetic ensemble (some of whom tackle multiple roles) includes Michael Birr, Mark J. Enea, Ashley Garrick, John-Elliott Kirk, Lauren Meyer, and Elise Youssef.

    Chris Vettel as Anna's father in New Girl in Town (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

    For some fans of musical theatre, New Girl in Town is a bucket-list item, one of those oft-forgotten shows from the golden era of the 1950s that is rarely performed anymore. Merrill's score, which includes such gems as "Anna Lilla," "Sunshine Girl," "Flings," "Look at 'Er," and "Roll Yer Socks Up" is surprisingly refreshing and often foreshadows the dramatic depths he achieved in Carnival!

    Allison F. Rich gives a determined yet sympathetic performance as Anna, with Chris Vettel and Judith Miller offering solid support as Chris and Marthy. The icing on the cake for this production is Joshua Marx's powerful voice and studly performance as Matt. Recently seen in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of Crimes of the Heart, Marx is a welcome addition to the Bay area theatre community.

    Performances of New Girl in Town continue through April 16 at the Eureka Theatre (click here for tickets).

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