Monday, November 20, 2017

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

One of the most famous Broadway legends tells how an unknown chorus girl got her big break in show business. On May 13, 1954, a new musical opened at the St. James Theatre starring Janis Paige and John Raitt. Among the supporting players in the cast of The Pajama Game were Eddie Foy, Jr., Reta Shaw, and Carol Haney. When Haney injured an ankle, her understudy (Shirley MacLaine) subbed for her, performing the famed "Steam Heat" number with Peter Gennaro and Buzz Miller. Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis attended one of the performances during which MacLaine went on in the role of Gladys, liked what he saw, and signed MacLaine to a contract with Paramount Pictures. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sutton Foster's rapid rise to stardom followed a similar path. While appearing in the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie during its 2001 pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, she was tasked with understudying the title role (which had originally been planned for Kristin Chenowith). When the producers decided to replace their leading lady's original successor, Foster's career track changed with one phone call. Luckily, she was ready to tap her troubles away.

A willingness to compromise is often seen as the key to realizing one's dreams. Some people work their asses off to overcome the obstacles blocking the path to achieving their goals while others seem to effortlessly sleep their way to to the top. For some women, their sexual skills might comprise what Stephen Sondheim called "a pleasurable means to a measurable end." For others, a pair of tap shoes can seal the deal.

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Directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, 1933's backstage musical, 42nd Street, became an easy favorite for audiences struggling through The Great Depression. With songs by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, it told the tale of an eager, but naive young hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who became an emergency replacement for the star of a Broadway-bound musical named Pretty Lady. With Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as the romantic leads (and Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, and Ginger Rogers in supporting roles), 42nd Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998.

In 1980, the beloved film was adapted for the musical stage by Gower Champion (whose unexpected death was announced to a shocked audience from the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre by producer David Merrick during the opening night's curtain call on August 25, 1980). With an original Broadway run of 3,486 performance, numerous productions of 42nd Street have been been staged around the world and toured extensively. The most recent production is currently holding forth at the Alcazar Theatre under the auspices of Bay Area Musicals.

The girls in the chorus of 42nd Street sing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo."
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

I'm always fascinated to see how well musicals that have earned iconic status due to the synergy of an historical original Broadway production (My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!), and a powerful logo and marketing campaign (Hair, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera) fare once regional and community theatre groups can purchase the performing rights. Sometimes the results are cringe-worthy. On happier occasions, these shows can become impressive showcases for local talent.

Nikita Burshteyn as Billy Lawlor in a scene from
42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

BAM's production of 42nd Street is a perfect example of what happens when the stars align above a foundation built on a lot of hard work. Not only does the show's book (by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble) retain its backstage sassiness, thanks to Daren A.C. Carollo's clever direction and Matthew McCoy's energetic choreography, the opening night proved to be quite a delightful experience. An added asset is that any show with lots of tap dancing is bound to make audiences happy.

Laurie Strawn as Dorothy Brock and Nikita Burshteyn as Billy
Lawlor in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Laurie Strawn's characterization of a temperamental musical comedy star whose luster is rapidly fading showed Dorothy Brock to have a vulnerable streak that eventually allows her to feel some empathy for her replacement. Venis Goodman got some solid laughs as Dorothy's sugar daddy, Abner Dillon, with Peter Budinger doing nice work as her former dance partner and secret lover, Pat Denning. DC Scarpelli's portrayal of Julian Marsh had all the bluster necessary for a bull-headed producer who refuses to take "no" for an answer.

DC Scarpelli as Julian Marsh and Samantha Rose as Peggy Sawyer
in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

While 42nd Street requires a capable ensemble of singing tap dancers with seemingly unlimited energy, the heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of the romantic leads. BAM hit casting gold with two indefatigable performers who have been seen on local stages in recent years. Not only did Samantha Rose's Peggy Sawyer rapidly progress from an insecure small-town girl to a hardworking chorine before being handed a make-it-or-break-it opportunity to take over on Pretty Lady's opening night from its injured star, the audience witnessed her tap dancing grow from nervous and tentative during the crammed rehearsals for Pretty Lady to confident and seemingly effortless on its opening night.

As Billy Lawlor, Nikita Burshteyn added another triumph to his collection of musical comedy leads which, even at a young age, he has performed with superb timing and unbridled enthusiasm. Tap dancing is a natural fit for his talents (I always look forward to his presence on a Bay area stage).

Samantha Rose as Peggy Sawyer and Nikita Burshteyn as Billy
Lawlor in a scene from 42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With scenery designed by Daren A.C. Carollo and Matthew McCoy, costumes by Brooke Jennings, and lighting by Courtney Johnson, the production was blessed with excellent sound design by Anton Hedman. Marisa Cozart's Maggie and Zach Padlo's Andy helped to strengthen the supporting cast.

Nikita Burshteyn as Billy Lawlor in a scene from
42nd Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Performances of 42nd Street continue through December 10 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Antoine François Prévost's romantic novel, L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), has the rare distinction of inspiring three operas:
Of the three, Massenet's opera has been the most successful thanks to the irresistible appeal of its score, the composer's stunning orchestrations, and a love story that includes a tense relationship between an impulsive young man and his more conservative father (which rivals the one in Verdi's La Traviata). Set in 1721, the story follows a young country girl whose parents have sent her to a convent in order to keep her out of trouble.

Ellie Dehn stars in Massenet's Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Although her brother, Lescaut (David Pershall), has come to meet her at a country inn, the unsophisticated Manon (Ellie Dehn) is fascinated by the wealth and fashions of a coach's passengers. Upon meeting the handsome young Chevalier des Grieux (Michael Fabiano), she falls in love at first sight and runs off to Paris with him. Before long, she becomes restless and is easily seduced by her brother's willingness to arrange for des Grieux to be kidnapped so that Manon can move up the social ladder.

Soon Manon is being kept by her brother's friend, De Brétigny (Timothy Mix), while an older and richer man, Guillot de Morfontaine (Robert Brubaker), lusts after her. Upon meeting her first lover's father, Le Comte des Grieux (James Creswell), she feels a twinge of regret for having abandoned her true love but cannot bear the thought that her handsome Chevalier has forgotten her.

A moment from Act II, Scene II of Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Just when Guillot has arranged for a ballet to be presented in her honor, Manon rushes off to the Church of Saint Sulpice to try to win her Chevalier back before he can enter the priesthood. Alas, her triumph is short lived. Although Des Grieux has uncanny luck while gambling at a local casino, Guillot accuses him of cheating and has the couple arrested. Broke and exhausted, Manon dies on the road to Le Havre as she begs Des Grieux to forgive her for her selfishness.

The San Francisco Opera is presenting a new staging of Manon by Vincent Boussard as part of a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Israeli Opera. As Boussard (who also designed the production's costumes) explains in his program note:
“Manon discovers very quickly what kind of power she can have over men. Because men think of women as objects (and she’s a victim of that), it’s a double game of manipulation. At the beginning she’s the prey, but then the prey becomes the predator. Her problem will be that she can’t ever stop. Once she has something, she wants something more. Her passion has no limits. She can find her way out of any mess because she has instinct and the right intuition for tricky situations, but she’s not planning anything. Never. She’s always surprised by herself and extraordinarily aware of who she is, which makes her character very complex yet she remains naïve until the end. I have no sympathy for the way she is behaving, but I’m fascinated and want to know more about her and her processes.”
Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano in a scene
from Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“This is what makes the character extremely fascinating. We can’t forget where she’s originally coming from and the time of the composer, but it’s not because of her time that Manon behaves the way that she does. As a director, I try to create bridges between periods of time to make the story seem more immediate. We’re trying to build bridges between the time of the story (the beginning of the 18th century), the time of Massenet (1884) and now. We’re playing with the idea that the opera’s characters aren’t stuck in an actual historical context. I’m trying to give the character of Manon a chance to be imagined and received by the audience as if she could also be a lady of today. She should appear without any filter. That’s why I’m trying to mix up these three different dimensions and periods.”

While Boussard's concept may sound intriguing to audiences who have no previous experience with Manon, I'd recommend that those familiar with Massenet's opera keep their eyes closed for much of the performance. Despite the best efforts of conductor Patrick Fournillier, chorus director Ian Robertson, and some fine singing by Ellie Dehn, Michael Fabiano, and James Creswell, Boussard's production is the antithesis of what Manon is all about. So many carefully constructed moments fall victim to scenic and symbolic gimmicks (without paying attention to either the libretto or the music) that it makes one wonder if (like many of Donald Trump's political appointees) Boussard was chosen  because of his intention to tear Massenet's opera to shreds.

As one watches Act I's scene at the inn, the first thought that comes to mind is that set designer Vincent Lemaire must have gotten a great deal on used chairs from a restaurant supply business. While Boussard's Act I costume for Lescaut features a crazy mashup between a soldier's overcoat and some glittery black pants, his costumes for Manon in the bedroom and Cours La Reine scenes made soprano Ellie Dehn look eight months pregnant.

Act I, Scene II (which is supposed to take place in the young lovers' apartment in Paris) features a huge, unmade bed which De Brétigny proceeds to walk across while clad in military boots. During Manon's big aria, "Adieu notre petite table," the soprano never even acknowledges the table she is supposedly singing to. In Act II, Scene II, when a barefoot Manon attempts to win back Des Grieux's love in the chapel of Saint Sulpice, there is precious little physical or eye contact between the two (her desperate attempt to grab a cross out of his hands drew titters of laughter from the audience).

After the mellifluous trio of Monica Dewey (Pousette), Laura Krumm (Javotte), and Renée Rapier (Rosette) add vocal color to the gambling scene, a barely visible Manon, dressed in a black dress, dies in front of a black curtain. Her final duet with Des Grieux is almost lost in the darkness until the evening's first star (a lonely lightbulb) descends from above.

Michael Fabiano and Ellie Dehn in the final
moments of Manon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Handicapped by a poorly articulated dramatic concept clogged with pretentious bits of symbolism, Boussard's costumes and stage direction ranged from merely inept to some mind-boggling "WTF" moments. Thankfully, he was unable to sabotage Massenet's score, the cast's excellent musicianship, or the stunning effects of Gary Marder's lighting. Here's the trailer:

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