Sunday, June 18, 2017

Transforming Ugly Ducklings into Swans

People struggle to overcome physical and/or emotional obstacles for all kinds of reasons. For athletes (who may be competing against others) as well as opera singers (who may be competing against themselves), there is a constant goal of stretching one's talent and honing it toward perfection. For others, there may be a burning desire to overcome a speech impediment (like stuttering) or their fear of speaking in public. For some, the challenge is to prove their worth to those who had slighted or underrated them.

The payoff is often a deeply personal moment of triumph over seemingly impossible odds. Think of the scene in The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller is finally able to say the word "water" to her astonished tutor, Anne Sullivan. Or the decisive moment at the end of Act I in La Cage aux Folles when the emotionally torn Albin sings "I Am What I Am."

It's exceedingly rare for an audience to witness a character's psychological growth from the initial moment of being paralyzed with fear to triumphantly strutting one's stuff with confidence. However, in the 1959 hit musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, the creative team (Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins) found a way to telescope Louise's transition from ugly duckling to sex symbol through a series of blackout scenes.

Whether one performs on a diving board, an athletic field or a stage, it takes a lot of confidence to step out in front of an audience. While one's initial attempts may not seem remarkable, continued practice can help struggling amateurs draw closer to their goals. When that magical breakthrough moment occurs, it's a source of unmitigated joy which can nevertheless raise troubling questions about the challenges that lie ahead.

* * * * * * * * *
Three famous quotes came to mind while watching the Bay area premiere of Matthew Lopez's riotously funny new play, The Legend of Georgia McBride, at the Marin Theatre Company.
Adam Magill as Casey in The Legend of Georgia McBride
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Lopez's play begins with Casey (Adam Magill) struggling to perform his impersonation of Elvis Presley for a handful of people in a tacky bar in Panama City, Florida. The proprietor, Eddie (John R. Lewis), is painfully aware that business sucks. Casey, however, is living in a complete state of denial. An affable man-boy who has been in a relationship for several years with a waitress named Jo (Tatiana Wechsler), he's been chasing his dream while Jo busts her ass for a diminishing number of tips.

Part of Casey's problem is that he has no concept of how to manage their money. In addition to using his ATM card to pay for things they cannot afford, his lack of attention to the balance in their checking account (coupled with his recent purchase of a new Elvis costume) has caused their rent check to bounce for the second time. Meanwhile, he's commuting nearly 80 miles a day to and from a job that costs him more than it pays. Although his close friend Jason (Jason Kapoor) is married to Casey's landlord, Jason's wife is on the brink of threatening eviction at the same time Jo learns that she is pregnant.

Jo (Tatiana Wechlser) and Casey (Adam Magill) in a scene from
The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In an odd way, Casey's plight is similar to Louise Hovick's at the moment when she discovers that her vaudeville act has been booked into a burlesque house. Both characters are flat broke with nowhere to go but up. So when a seemingly ghastly opportunity offers a temporary solution, there's no time to resist. Desperate times require desperate measures.

Louise's break comes when the lead stripper,Tessie Tura, walks out in a huff. Casey's is a little bit slower to materialize. Unbeknownst to him, Eddie has invited a distant cousin to come perform at his bar as a replacement for Casey's failing Elvis act. When Eddie's cousin turns out to be none other than Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) who arrives with her drunken sidekick, Rexy (Jason Kapoor) in tow, Casey's only option is to tend bar until he can find another chance to impersonate Elvis.

Kraig Swartz, Jason Kapoor, and John R. Lewis in a scene from
The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Rexy passes out in a drunken stupor, the show must go on. Although Casey's first instinct is to warm up his old Elvis routine, the hysterical Eddie (who suffers from migraine headaches) insists that the bar's sold-out crowd is expecting a drag show and they'd damned well better get one. Following the old theatrical tradition that "the show must go on," Georgia McBride is born out of little more than sheer panic and burning necessity.

Thankfully, Miss Tracy Mills has guided lots of aspiring gay boys down the yellow brick road to fulfilling their dreams of becoming successful drag queens. The difference here is that Casey is straight and much too embarrassed to tell Jo about his new persona. As he blossoms and begins to thrive in his new identity, the money he and Jo have so desperately needed starts to materialize and grow. Even as Georgia McBride gains a loyal following, Casey retains a slight awkwardness in drag (like a white basketball player who can't jump or a straight man who lacks rhythm and panache when wearing a dress).

Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) prepares Casey (Adam Magill) for his
drag debut in The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Directed by Kent Gash on Jason Sherwood's unit set (with lighting by Kurt Landisman and a splendid array of costumes designed by Kara Harmon), The Legend of Georgia McBride is filled with delicious surprises, including a drag name I'd never heard before (Freida Slaves). While some members of the audience may be suspicious about a play centered around a straight man who finds a career in drag, it should be noted that plenty of straight men (including Jack Benny and Milton Berle) had a great time dressing up as women.

However, Lopez's script has a few novel surprises. In a scene where Rexy lectures Casey about needing to know and understand why gay men get up in drag (as opposed to just putting on a dress as a way to earn money), the audience gets a sobering account of the night a young Rexy was the victim of a brutal fagbashing. Later, as Casey tries to convince Jo that his performing in drag is not necessarily a bad thing, he explains how it has led to much more than just the money he's been bringing home to support his family (which will soon include twins named Elvis and Priscilla). For a man who had been chronically irresponsible with money, working in drag has helped Casey to find the better part of himself and become more like the person he would like to be.

Adam Magill in The Legend of Georgia McBride
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's a beautiful monologue for Adam Magill, who delivers it with convincing sweetness and a sense that Jo's husband/man-child is finally growing up. As in previous productions around the Bay, Magill proves himself to be wonderfully skillful in moments that call for extreme physical comedy. While Kraig Swartz tears up the stage as Miss Tracy Mills, Jason Kapoor (who doubles as Jason and Rexy) offers an impressive performance notable for its slapstick drag moments as well as his tender proof of friendship as Jason confesses to Casey that he's known a few drag queens in his own life.

Both John R. Lewis and Tatiana Wechsler do some impressive work as their characters evolve toward a happy ending which sends audiences home with goofy smiles on their faces. The musical numbers are aided by Chris Houston's sound design and original music.

At the end of the opening night performance (this was the final production of MTC's 50th anniversary season), Adam Magill gave a touching fundraising speech in which he told the audience how, as a child who was diagnosed to be within the autistic spectrum, an early exposure to live theatre helped him overcome a lot of obstacles that might have prevented him from becoming the man -- as well as the actor -- that he is today. The audience (which had been primed for an exciting opening night) embraced him in a tidal wave of well-earned applause.

Jason Kapoor, Adam Magill, and Kraig Swartz in the musical finale
to The Legend of Georgia McBride (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of The Legend of Georgia McBride continue through July 2 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
For its opening night, the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival chose Harold Lloyd's 1925 farce, The Freshman. With its famous football game (filmed at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium), the screening also debuted a new score performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra that had been composed by seven students from the Berklee College of Music's film scoring department under the guidance of Professor Sheldon Mirowitz.

This marks the third year that the BSFO has traveled west to perform in San Francisco, which has proven to be a win-win-win relationship for the festival, the college's young composers, and the audience. Congratulations to this year's talented composers: Vincent Isler from Zurich, Esin Aydingoz from Istanbul, Bernard Duc from Lausanne, Andres Gutierrez Moreno from Guadalajara, Jeffrey Gaiser from Cleveland, Vinicius Pippa from São Paulo, and Victoria Ruggiero from Lancaster, New York for a job well done!

In The Freshman, Lloyd stars as Harold "Speedy" Lamb, a gung-ho college freshman whose life-long dream has been to join Tate University's football team. One reason why his loyal friend, Peggy (who is described in a title card as "the kind of girl your mother must have been") does not run with the rich kids is that her mother is Harold's landlady.

Speedy has lots of quirks which make him an unlikely choice to be a big man on compus. He's laughably eager, goodhearted to the point of being extremely gullible, and easily mocked by the cool crowd who prefer to hang out with the College Cad (Brooks Benedict). To his credit, Speedy is willing to put up with the extraordinary amount of humiliation and physical abuse doled out by the team's coach (Pat Harmon) in order to gain acceptance.

Whether hiding a kitten in his sweater or trying to hold his pants up as his tuxedo comes apart during the Fall Frolic dance, Lloyd is a master of physical comedy (keep in mind that The Freshman was filmed at a time when stars like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd performed their own stunts). Watching the set-up for each sight gag is like a master class in farce. Although not as crisp as the print that was screened at the Castro Theatre on the festival's opening night, the following video contains the entirety of 1925's The Freshman.

No comments: