Thursday, December 28, 2017

Dressing Actors For Success

Despite any Marxist fantasies about the benefits of a classless society, with the signing of the Republicans' loathsome Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 by President Trump, there can be little doubt that the United States is headed toward becoming a society whose members are increasingly separated by race, religion, wealth, and social class. Thankfully, the arts offer plenty of predictions about what that looks like.
Whether such stories are adapted for the stage, screen, or opera house, costume designers always welcome an opportunity to contrast the fashions of the haute monde with those of the poor. The task of dressing Donizetti's three queens (Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, and Anne Boleyn) can be just as formidable as providing costumes for a large chorus of peasants.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in costume as Donizetti's three queens
for the Metropolitan Opera (Photos by: Ken Howard)

In 1956, Cecil Beaton had a stroke of genius when he designed all of the costumes for My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte in shades of black, white, and grey with the lone exception of Eliza Doolittle's costume. When Julie Andrews directed a 60th anniversary revival of the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical for Opera Australia using Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton's original designs, John David Ridge explained their historical accuracy.

Although the history of fashion from many cultures and eras is well documented, the challenge for costume designers is not just to recreate what they see in archives, but to craft costumes that will work well on stage or in front of a camera. Sometimes, costume design needs to be sly enough to send a message that the costumes are not being worn by characters who are rich enough to afford them. Consider the lyrics to "Elegance" from Act II of Hello, Dolly!
"What a knack there is to that acting like a born aristocrat
Exercise your wildest whims tonight
We are out with Diamond Jims tonight.
Vanderbilt kowtows to us
J.P. Morgan scrapes and bows to us
We've got elegance, if you ain't got elegance
You can never ever carry it off!

Middle class don't speak of it, savoir faire, we reek of it!
All the guests of Mr. Hackl are
Feeling great and look spectacular
Some were born with rags and patches
But we use dollar bills for matches 'cause
We've got elegance, we were born with elegance
And with elegance we'll carry it off!"
Eileen Brennan as Irene Molloy and Sondra Lee as Minnie Fay
in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!

One of the reasons I love attending screenings by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is that the costumes in many films from the 1920s (even though they may only have been filmed in black and white) are stupendous fashion statements. While some people like to claim that "clothes make the man" two films from 1925 that were shown during December's "A Day of Silents" program did a splendid job of showing that clothes make the woman, too.

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Born on January 15, 1893 in Cardiff, Wales, one of Great Britain's most beloved stars of stage and screen was a true polymath. Ivor Novello (who composed the scores to several popular musicals) had his first hit as a songwriter with 1914's "Keep the Home Fires Burning." As his career grew, he gained fame as a writer, actor, and composer. In 1916, Novello was introduced to Bobbie Andrews (who became his lover for the next 35 years and introduced him to Noel Coward). Coward, who was in awe of Novello, later confessed that "I just felt suddenly conscious of the long way I had to go before I could break into the magic atmosphere in which he moved and breathed with such nonchalance."

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron in the 1925 silent film, The Rat

In 1920, Novello made his screen debut as a romantic lead in Louis Mercanton's silent film, The Call of the Blood, followed by his stage debut in Sacha Guitry's 1921 play, Deburau. According to Wikipedia, Novello appeared in 22 films and, as a writer, contributed to 14 screenplays. He performed onstage with Ellen Terry and starred in the London premiere of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom (which inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 hit musical, Carousel). Among the stage productions that Novello wrote (W), composed (C), and/or acted in (A) are the following:

The camera loved the expressiveness of Novello's face and he quickly became one of the most famous matinée idols of silent film. After Novello's brief affair with writer Siegfried Sassoon, he was described in Sassoon's biography by John Stuart Roberts as "a consummate flirt who collected lovers as he gathered lilacs."

Isabel Jeans as Zélie de Chaumet and Ivor Novello as Pierre
Boucheron in a scene from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

Following Novello's death on March 6, 1951 at the age of 58, newspaper reports of his funeral stressed that, as with Valentino's funeral, there was mass hysteria among his devoted female fans.
Poster art for the 1925 silent film, The Rat

In 1924, Novello produced, co-wrote, and starred in a play called The Rat. The SFSFF's recent screening at the Castro Theatre of the 1925 silent film adaptation (co-written by and starring Novello) was a classic tale of what can go wrong when, just like Rose and Jack in Titanic, a fascination with someone from a vastly different social class causes all kinds of unforeseen problems.

Set in Paris, The Rat stars Novello as Pierre Boucheron, a familiar figure in underground society who likes to hang out at The White Coffin. A notorious heartbreaker among young women, Boucheron (who is equally adept at stealing jewelry) has been living with Odile Etrange (Mae Marsh) when he encounters Zélie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans), a woman who is being kept by the older man Herman Stetz (Robert Scholtz). Fearing that the performance she is attending with some friends at the Folies Bergère might be somewhat underwhelming, she arranges to have an after-party at The White Coffin.

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron in a scene
from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

Because Pierre has forgotten to take his knife with him, Odile brings it to The White Coffin and leaves it in the care of Mère Colline (Marie Ault). Upon arriving on the scene, Pierre sees Herman acting aggressive with Odile and throws him out of the club. By the time Zèlie and her friends arrive, Pierre has gotten into a knife fight and begins to perform the famous Apache dance.

Before leaving the club, Zèlie passes a note to Pierre with her address, suggesting that he come up and see her sometime. But while she is pursuing the man known to all as "The Rat," Herman has tracked Odile back to her rented room and is trying to attack and subdue the thief's girlfriend. Directed by Graham Cutts, The Rat demonstrates how a well-made play can find new life in a carefully crafted film adaptation. With a plot filled with surprising twists and turns, The Rat has an unexpectedly satisfying ending as Pierre and Odile are saved from torment by Zèlie's willingness to testify on Rat's behalf.

Ivor Novello as Pierre Boucheron and Isabel Jeans as Zélie
de Chaumet in a scene from the 1925 silent film, The Rat

With live accompaniment by Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet, The Rat benefits from strong character acting by Julie Suedo (Mou Mou), Iris Grey (Rose), James Lindsay (Detective Caillard), and Esme Fitzgibbons (Madeline Sornay). But there is never any doubt who the star is -- or why. As Margarita Landazuri notes in her program essay:
“Beginning in the silent era, Novello was a magnetic presence in the movies, with his perfect profile, soulful eyes, and cupid’s bow lips (even when playing a shady character, as he does in The Rat). Film historian and critic Geoffrey Macnab writes that Novello’s performance as Pierre Boucheron was ‘the role in which he best combined the dreamy, neurotic side of his screen personality with swaggering, action-hero antics.’”
Mae Marsh (Odile) and Ivor Novello (Pierre) in a scene from The Rat

When the silent film adaptation of The Rat was released in 1925, it did so well that it was followed by The Triumph of the Rat in 1926 and The Return of the Rat in 1929 (both starring Novello). As Norma Desmond stressed in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Ivor Novello stars in 1925's silent version of The Rat

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In 1925's silent film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play entitled Lady Windermere's Fan, Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell) and his wife, Lady Margaret Windermere (May McAvoy) find their fidelity put to an extreme test when a mysterious woman contacts Lord Windermere and insists on meeting with him in private. After revealing that she is, in fact, Lady Windermere’s long-lost mother (who had an illegitimate child and was forced to leave London under scandalous circumstances), Lord Windermere agrees to give Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) a generous allowance but warns her that surprising his wife with the news of her true identity would be a shocking and tragic mistake.

Mary McAvoy (Lady Windermere) and Ronald Colman (Lord Darlington)
in a scene from the 1925 silent film, Lady Windermere's Fan

Meanwhile, Lady Windermere has been desperately trying to discourage the attentions of her husband’s close friend, Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), who insists on flirting. During a day at the races, the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne attracts the attention of one of London’s “most distinguished bachelors," Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindel), who is entranced by her presence. If Mrs. Erlynne can get Lord Lorton to propose to her, she could marry him and regain her position in London society. But, with Lord Darlington having informed Lady Windermere that her husband is writing checks to a strange woman, the web of intrigue based on gross misassumptions starts spinning out of control.

The three gossiping duchesses in a scene from the 1925 silent film
adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan

Ernst Lubitsch’s screen adaptation poses a strange contradiction. A beautifully shot silent film blessed with the extravagant wardrobe Sophie Wachner designed for Irene Rich, the movie is stunningly bereft of Wilde’s brilliant writing (which includes such great lines as “I can resist everything except temptation”). With a running time of 90 minutes, Lubitsch’s film does a delicate dance around questions of marital infidelity by showing how a ravishingly beautiful woman (scorned by societal gossips) can make all the men at a race track supremely uncomfortable after having seemingly returned from the dead.

Ronald Colman (Lord Darlington) and Irene Rich (Mrs. Erlynne)
in a scene from 1925's silent adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan

In her program essay, Monica Nolan sheds light on how so much of the Irish playwright’s writing managed to disappear from the screenplay.
  • Supposedly, the executors of Wilde’s estate "were violently opposed to a transfer of the play to film and consent was obtained only when the executors learned that Lady Windermere’s Fan would be placed in the hands of Ernst Lubitsch. However, this was “promotional piffle" considering that film historian Charles Musser had revealed that Warner Bros. did not acquire the rights from Wilde’s estate, but from the Ideal Film Company (which had made a movie from the play in 1916).
  • Lubitsch’s famous race track sequence is described as “a tour-de-force montage of society gossips and lip-licking men peering at Mrs. Erlynne from every angle, during which Lubitsch wordlessly establishes the series of misinterpretations (just who is looking at whom, and why?) that drive the play’s crucial misunderstanding. Although Warner Bros. gave Lubitsch carte blanche, neither Harry nor Jack Warner were fans of subtlety (one of Lubitsch’s greatest storytelling strengths).
  • Lubitsch was quoted in the New York Herald Tribune as saying that “Epigrams on the printed page or on the stage are delightful, but … would much charm remain to long excerpts from Wilde’s play if the audience had to ponder laboriously over the scintillating sentences on screen?” Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany for Hollywood until 1922. As Nolan astutely posits: “This is probably more promotional puffery. Could Lubitsch, still struggling with English, have actually produced the alliterative ‘scintillating sentences on screen’”?
Irene Rich (Mrs. Erlynne) and Mary McAvoy (Lady Windermere)
in a scene from the 1925 silent film, Lady Windermere's Fan

With live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Lady Windermere's Fan lost some of its bite due to so much missing dialogue, but gained quite a bit from Lubitsch's meticulously directed visuals. Carrie Daumery, Helen Dunbar, and Billie Bennett were comic foils as the three gossipy duchesses, while the dashing Ronald Colman oozed sex appeal. Thankfully, the entire film is available online for your enjoyment on YouTube.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Try Walking A Mile in THEIR Shoes!

If the increased visibility of the transgender community has proven anything, it's that many Americans are either paralyzed or enraged by their fear of anything that threatens the traditional gender roles that defined their childhood. Forget the stereotypical ideal of a nuclear family from the 1950s. Same-sex marriages have shockingly (at least for some people) forced conservatives to accept the fact that women can be the breadwinners in a family and men can stay at home and handle such traditional "women's jobs" as cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, and doing the daily grunt work involved in raising children.

In the past few years numerous memes have floated around the Internet designed to prick the hypersensitive egos of men who spend their lives thinking of women as sexual objects or pieces of property. One of the most common memes takes a standard conversation in which one man compliments another on the way he's dressed. The compliments start to escalate until the recipient feels vulnerable, perhaps even violated. The meme ends by asking "How would you feel if you were treated like that every day?"

With (primarily female) victims of sexual predation feeling sufficiently empowered to name and shame the men who assaulted them, the #MeToo phenomenon surging across social media has forced the public to acknowledge that some of their heroes have been leading villainous lifestyles. In the case of people like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, and Matt Lauer, their lechery was an open secret. Recent revelations about such celebrities as Kevin Spacey, James Levine, Roy Moore, and Charlie Rose had a creepiness that made them especially newsworthy.

When popular idols are toppled from their pedestals, some people are quick to challenge the veracity of a victim's accusations. And yet, even with their newfound knowledge, few people would be willing to walk a mile in the shoes of men and women who have been sexually harassed, raped, and suffered from years of self-doubt and self-blame. Would these people be able to survive the emotional anguish and psychological pain of having their lives shattered because a predator targeted them as a potential conquest? I sincerely doubt it.

Thankfully, there are moments when men who routinely discount women's experiences get a hint of what it's like to live inside a female body. If you haven't had a chance to read Dan Pearce's article entitled A Letter to Men: The Lesson of the Saggy Burrito in My Pants, I heartily recommend it. While I've always enjoyed watching The Try Guys, two of their recent Buzzfeed videos deserve extra credit for giving men a taste of specifically gender-related types of pain.

Playing with gender roles really works some people's nerves. In the early days of the LGBT rights movement, conservative gays would frequently bemoan the presence of drag queens and leather men in LGBT Pride parades, preferring that only 'respectable' gays be given visibility. What they failed to acknowledge was that it was the drag queens who pushed back against the police during the 1966 raid on Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco and the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Their courage was the torch that ignited much of today's LGBT movement for equal rights.

Two recent San Francisco events focused on the cultural confusion that can erupt from overturning traditional gender roles. One involved a screen-to-stage adaptation of John Madden's beloved 1998 film that earned seven Academy Awards. The other was a 1924 silent film directed by John G. Blystone that had been beautifully restored by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Each mined comedic gold from a reversal of gender norms.

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For its end-of-year holiday show, Marin Theatre Company presented the Bay Area premiere of Shakespeare in Love. Set in London in 1593, Lee Hall's lively stage adaptation of the original screenplay crafted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard requires 13 highly-skilled actors to portray 36 characters as Will Shakespeare struggles to finish a play commissioned by Richard Burbage with the only requirement being that it includes a dog. While Shakespeare in Love features appearances by such historical figures as Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage, Ned Alleyn, Philip Henslowe, Edmund Tilney, and John Webster, other characters are convenient figments of the scriptwriters' imagination.
The budding romance between Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps helps to drive a great deal of the plot. However, it is complicated by the fact that Viola frequently appears dressed as a man. That's because the play's dramatic engine revolves around Viola's desire to become a professional actor in an era when women were strictly forbidden from appearing on the London stage. In her program note, dramaturg Lauren A. Brueckner writes:
“The crime of obscenity came in many forms in Protestant 16th-century England. It was a catch-all for a host of things that the city fathers felt undermined the power structure that kept everyone in their place in society. They were especially disgusted by cross-dressing, whether it was a nearly penniless actor cross-dressed (in terms of class) pretending to be a king, or the attractive prepubescent boys who began their acting apprenticeships performing female roles onstage (not to mention the thousand characters that dress as someone else), theatre’s insistent deception about the fundamental nature of reality was its main offense. Impersonating a king, whose body and reign were literally held to be sacred, was obscene -- and so was impersonating a member of the other sex against the law of nature and of God. The only way it could have been any worse is if there had been actual women up there. Why? An issue of control, mostly.”
Megan Trout as Viola de Lesseps in a scene from
Shakespeare in Love (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“A certain level of anxiety about possible promiscuity and illegitimate children is understandable in a political economy that revolves around inherited titles and wealth. However, in Shakespeare’s England, that anxiety resulted in the virtual imprisonment of women from the lower middle class on up. Through a range of social controls including weekly church sermons, gossip, the marriage market, and laws punishing infidelity in women far more harshly than in men, a woman’s ‘virtue’ was enshrined as not only the highest attainment to which she could spend every waking moment striving but, frankly, the only thing of any value about her whatsoever. Elizabethan society was obsessed with policing its women -- especially the upper class and the nouveaux riches who, like Viola’s father, aspired to that class. Viola was not risking being grounded for a week, say, or put on probation at school. She is risking her entire life and any hope of future happiness in order to participate as a colleague and equal in this art form. Shakespeare in Love is, above all, a love letter to the theatre, and its power to transform the stuff of ordinary life into timeless and transcendent magic.”
Megan Trout (Viola de Lesseps) and Adam Magill (Shakespeare)
in a scene from Shakespeare in Love (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed with zeal by Jasson Minadakis, this production benefited immensely from a tightly-knit ensemble comprised of some of the Bay area's leading actors (many of whom played musical instruments during the performance). With Ben Euphrat handling musical matters as the leader of an onstage band, Mark Anderson Phillips (Fennyman), Liam Vincent (Ralph), and Kenny Toll (portraying Kit Marlowe and Ned Alleyn) joined Stacy Ross (who appeared as Queen Elizabeth, a nurse, Mistress Quickly, and a woman named Molly). Other actors deftly jumping in and out of multiple roles included L. Peter Callender (Burbage, Adam, and a boatman), Lance Gardner (Valentine, Robin, Kate, and Lambert), Thomas Gorrebeeck (Wessex, Tybalt, and Peter), and Brian Herndon (Tilney, Wabash, and Nol).

Adam Magill (Will Shakespeare) and Megan Trout (Viola de Lesseps) have become familiar faces to Bay area audiences who have had the pleasure of watching them develop over the years while savoring their versatility. And yet, MTC's production was often stolen by Sango Tajima who, when not playing the violin, portrayed Webster with the kind of hilariously crazed energy that made Bobby Lee such a powerful comedic force on MADtv.

Adam Magill (Shakespeare) and Sango Tajima (Webster) in a
scene from Shakespeare in Love (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

MTC's production featured a sturdy unit set designed by Kat Conley, period costumes by Katherine Nowacki, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and sound design by Sara Huddleston. Key contributions to the production's success include the fight direction by Dave Maier and choreography by Liz Tenuto as well as Jessica Berman's work as a dialect coach and Jennifer Reason's music direction.

Thanks, in large part, to Tom Stoppard's extensive knowledge of Shakespeare and his times, this production of Shakespeare in Love proves that a stage adaptation of a beloved film does not need the Queen of England to step over a mud puddle in order to win an audience's love. Here's the trailer:
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While Shakespeare in Love depicts a woman's desperate desire for the freedom to be whatever she wants to be, The Last Man on Earth shows what can happen when women rule the world. Recently screened during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's "A Day of Silents" program at the Castro Theatre, this gender-bending 1924 farce begins innocently enough with eight-year-old Elmer Smith (Buck Black) being unnecessarily nasty to six-year-old Hattie (Jean Johnston) because he doesn't know how to tell a girl that he likes her. Flash forward to 1950, when the United States has a female President and the adult Elmer (Earle Foxe) is living a primitive life in the woods. How can this be? An epidemic of "masculinitis" has succeeded in killing off nearly all the men on the planet.

Earle Foxe is the unlikely star of 1924's The Last Man on Earth

After a female aviator named Gertie the Gangster (Grace Cunard) discovers Elmer, her find causes havoc as the goofy, dimwitted hermit becomes the grand prize of the land, sought after by every woman (including those who would fight to be on top).

Elmer Smith (Earle Foxe) gets a medical checkup from Dr. Prodwell
(Clarissa Selwynne) in a scene from 1924's The Last Man on Earth

With an eye toward making a hefty profit off something more valuable than gold, Gertie sells Elmer to the Federal government for a whopping $10 million. The female politicians running the nation wisely choose to let Elmer's fate be decided by a boxing match between two leading contenders (to be held on the floor of the United States Senate).

The boxing scene from 1924's The Last Man on Earth

In his program essay, Kyle Westphal writes:
“Adapted from a short story by John D. Swain that appeared in the November 1923 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, The Last Man on Earth reads like a science-fiction goof taken a step too far, with the narrative often set aside to ruminate on the surprising dividends and unexpected consequences of a society without men. The outlandish setup (a planet without men, victims of the deadly “masculinitis” epidemic) remains more than enough. Among the effects of masculinitis: the real estate market evaporates and the surviving women have their choice of the poshest mansions. Prohibition remains on the books out of inertia, though alcohol abuse has plummeted in the absence of men. Church attendance crumbles despite a new class of ‘frenzied female evangelists’ for ‘a manless religion was doomed to atrophy.’ Football ceases to be played and literature loses its luster.”
Earle Foxe is the unlikely star of 1924's The Last Man on Earth
“Both the short story and the film solve the problem of matriarchal and narrative stasis by introducing a hitherto forgotten man into the equation, a biological game-changer discovered in a remote forest by a clique of hard-edged femme gangsters. In this credulity-straining moment we are reminded that this female-only planet was thoroughly the product of the limited imaginations of a roster of studio men. As Farran Smith Nehme observed in Film Comment, ‘If a woman were to create a cinematic world where a mysterious epidemic had killed all but one man on earth, you better believe the leftover would be Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gilbert Roland ... the list goes on, but in any event, it sure wouldn’t be the 1924 film’s Earle Foxe.' A tree-dwelling, emaciated Rip van Winkle blissfully ignorant of the new status quo, Foxe cannot help but present the least compelling justification for his sorry gender.”
Photo by: Allen Sawyer

With live musical accompaniment by Philip Carli, the sense of humor driving The Last Man on Earth is captured by the above intertitle. Joining in the fun were Gladys Tennyson as the aforementioned Frisco Kate, Clarissa Selwynne as the appropriately named Dr. Prodwell, and Derelys Perdue as the adult version of Elmer's childhood crush, Hattie.

The powerful women on display in 1924's The Last Man on Earth

“Why contemplate what women would do for pleasure in a manless world when the sight of a woman president or a woman street sweeper would be enough to generate a nervous chortle from an audience still coming to the terms with the new social order in the wake of the 19th Amendment? asks Westphal. "‘With love, fighting, sex jealousy, double-living, bootlegging, bohemianism, villains, missing heirs, faithless lovers and guardians removed, what was the poor novelist to do?’ wondered Swain. Even years later, with universal suffrage an established part of the fabric of American life, the idea of a gynocracy proved too fantastic to resist, with Fox remaking the story in 1933 as a pre-Code musical entitled It’s Great to Be Alive.”

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Child Is This?

The notorious curmudgeon, W.C. Fields is often cited for having warned his professional colleagues to "never work with animals or children." And yet sometimes there's just no way to avoid them. Works like Georges Bizet's 1875 masterpiece, Carmen, and Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera, The Turn of the Screw, include music specifically composed for boy sopranos. What would Act II of Puccini's La Bohème be without a group of children clamoring for one of Parpignol's toys?

While musicals like Annie Get Your Gun, Peter Pan, and Mary Poppins feature young children, it's impossible to imagine productions of Annie, Matilda the Musical, Billy Elliot The Musical, or Oliver! without a gaggle of child actors onstage.

Although holiday stagings of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol pop up in numerous cities at this time of year, one rarely encounters a revival of Here's Love! (Meredith Willson's disappointing musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street). In her timely column in The Washington Post entitled Tiny Tim's GoFund Me, Alexandra Petri writes:
"It’s 2017. We don’t live in a Dickensian nightmare where people retort, 'Are there no workhouses?' in response to requests for assistance. We live in a different nightmare, where people have euphemisms."

In a recent blog post, Bill English (the artistic director of San Francisco Playhouse) wrote:
“Regardless of our particular spiritual beliefs, we humans have, since the beginning of recorded history, created myths of hope around the winter solstice (especially in Northern climes where a real winter darkens the skies and nothing new grows). Ancient peoples, given their lack of understanding about the causes of seasons, were terrified that spring might not come, that no new planting season would be possible, that no new children would be born. And every culture is full of reassuring mythological explanations (like the Greeks with Persephone) of why the sun would soon stay up longer, green grass would peek through the snow, the songbirds return.

I think it’s safe to say that despite our thorough comprehension of the movement of the spheres, our decoding of the strands of DNA, or our understanding of subatomic particles, we are still basically helpless in the face of nature’s power to devastate us with fire, wind, rain or earthquake, still helpless to avoid a runaway asteroid or the death of our sun -- let alone helpless in the face of our own natures and our own capacity to devastate the earth and our fellow humans with hatred and greed. Little has changed in our desperate need for hope in the darkest hours. Can we humbly admit that we are still helpless and ignorant? Can we put aside human arrogance and pray for light, understanding and hope? I think we must.”
While Tiny Tim's prayer gets answered by Charles Dickens, December can be a trying time for parents. Some become exhausted trying to keep their children occupied long enough to make it through the gift frenzy of Christmas morning. Others struggle to put food on the table (if their family even has a roof over its head -- or a table).

However, there is one type of child for whom Christmas brings the happiest gift imaginable: employment. Not in a workhouse, not in retail, but in a theatre where child actors are needed for a holiday entertainment. Nothing could make a stage mother happier than knowing that her child has a chance to perform during the holidays.

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A recent item on Page Six of The New York Post revealed that Zack Ward (who was 13 years old when he played Scut Farkus in the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story) still gets royalty checks for his work. “It’s basically about $1,800 every two years … and it comes in Canadian money because we shot in Canada," he explained. "Many people come up to me and are like, ‘You got your ass kicked by Ralphie’ and it makes them so happy!"

This month, while most audiences are focusing on Fox's telecast of A Christmas Story Live! (starring Maya Rudolph, Matthew Broderick, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Krakowski, Ken Jeong, David Alan Grier, and Ana Gasteyer), the San Francisco Playhouse is staging A Christmas Story: The Musical, which has a book by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Christopher Reber appears as the narrator, Jean Shepherd in
A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Based on Jean Sheperd's best-selling novel, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, the story takes place in suburban Indiana during the late 1940s (when all that nine-year-old Ralphie can think about is how badly he wants Santa Claus to bring him a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle). The musical does a nice job of capturing an era when families ate dinner together and no one had the option of using handheld electronic devices to isolate themselves from friends and neighbors.
  • Boys did a splendid job of getting into trouble simply because they were boys,
  • Mothers had their work cut out for them according to strict gender roles.
  • Fathers could make utter fools of themselves without being totally humiliated by their families.
Ryan Drummond (The Old Man) and Abby Haug (Mother) in a scene
from A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While the family depicted in A Christmas Story: The Musical is a far cry from any of Norman Rockwell's paintings, it shares many moments of tenderness and dysfunctional behavior. The scene in which Ralphie's kid brother, Randy (who has always refused to eat a full meal) discovers the joys of Chinese food is a special delight for me.

I first saw A Christmas Story: The Musical when a touring production touched down at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre in December 2015. Despite it being very much a period piece, the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the United States makes me wince in Act II during a scene of abject gun worship that feels especially creepy in light of recent mass shootings.

Nevertheless, this is a show which employs a lot of children as Ralphie's friends and classmates. At the performance I attended, the understudy for Ralphie (Mario Gianni Herrera) went on in the role. Because Ralphie is usually played by a child actor who is fairly trim and athletic, it was refreshing to see someone who is still at the pudgy stage of adolescence step into the role and make it his own. Not only did Herrera's body make Ralphie a lot more believable as the child who is always being picked upon by his peers, Herrera displayed a surprisingly large and dark voice that added a whole new layer to his characterization.

Understudy Mario Gianni Herrera (seen far right) took over
the role of Ralphie during a recent performance of
A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With costumes by Abra Berman, lighting by Thomas J. Munn, and sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker, the production was directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Kimberly Richards and music direction by Dave Dobrusky,. Although the performance I attended seemed a bit under par, credit goes to Alex Hsu as the Fantasy Villain and Chinese waiter. Katrina Lauren McGraw shone as the schoolteacher, Miss Shields, in her big number ("You'll Shoot Your Eye Out").

Katrina Lauren McGraw as the schoolteacher, Miss Shields, in a scene
from A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Much of the performance I attended was kept afloat by the enthusiasm a large audience contingent made up of San Francisco Playhouse's "Rising Stars" (a program which underwrites the cost of high school students attending live theatre), whose teacher was appearing onstage. Jake Miller did some nice work as the shy, withdrawn Randy who prefers to hide under the kitchen table or sink whenever he gets stressed out. Abby Haug did well with the score's two strongest songs ("What A Mother Does" and "Just Like That"). As always, Ryan Drummond (whose energetic stage presence can rescue any sagging performance) was rock solid as The Old Man.

The Old Man (Ryan Drummond) displays the leg lamp he won to
his family in a scene from A Christmas Story: The Musical
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of A Christmas Story: The Musical continue through January 13 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:
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Over at the Gateway Theatre, 42nd Street Moon is presenting The Secret Garden as its holiday attraction. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, this show is a musical adaptation of the popular 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Although the action begins in colonial India in 1906, it shifts to England soon after the orphaned Mary Lennox (Katie Maupin) is discovered to be the only person in her home to have survived a local cholera epidemic.

Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (Mrs. Medlock) and Katie Maupin (Mary
Lennox) in The Secret Garden (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Born and raised during the British Raj, the 10-year-old Mary travels by ship from India to North Yorkshire, England. Expecting to be pampered in her new home just as she was by her family’s servants in India, Mary gets a rude awakening when she discovers that her uncle, Archibald Craven (Brian Watson), is so deeply depressed that he can barely communicate with her. With Archibald still mourning the death of his beautiful wife, Lily (Sharon Rietkerk), Mary's only company is the stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone).

Katie Maupin (Mary Lennox) with Heather Orth (Martha) in a
scene from The Secret Garden(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Left to her own devices in the rambling hallways of Misselthwaite Manor, Mary is soon befriended by a maid named Martha (Heather Orth) and Martha’s brother, Dickon (Keith Pinto), a talented young man who has a unique ability to communicate with plants and animals.

Keith Pinto as Dickon in a scene from The Secret Garden
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

After discovering the presence of Archibald's sickly nephew, young Colin (Tyler Groshong), Mary finds the key to Lily’s secret garden. How Colin regains his health, Archibald overcomes his depression, and Mary gains the love of her uncle is a tale told with ghosts, magic, and seeds, all drenched in Lucy Simon’s semi-operatic score.

The Secret Garden premiered on Broadway on April 25, 1991, had an impressive run of 709 performances at the St. James Theatre, and won the Tony Award for the Best Book of a Musical (at the age of 11, Daisy Eagan became the youngest performer ever to win a Tony Award). Others in the original Broadway cast included Alison Fraser as Martha, Rebecca Luker as Lily, John Cameron Mitchell (the creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as Dickon, Mandy Patinkin as Archibald, and Robert Westenberg as Archibald's brother, Neville.

Sharon Rietkerk as Lily in a scene from The Secret Garden
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

With costumes by Rebecca Valentino, lighting by David Lam, and choreography by Robyn Tribuzi, 42nd Street Moon's production benefited from scenery designed by Brian Watson (who portrayed Archibald opposite Edward Hightower's scheming Neville). Lucinda Hitchcock Cone was a tenderhearted Mrs. Medlock with Scott Hayes appearing as Lily's gruff old gardener, Ben. In supporting roles, Amanda Johnson portrayed Rose, with Corinne Rydman as Claire and Ryan Lee Henry as Albert. Countertenor Michael Mohammed appeared as a Fakir with Anjali Blacker as Ayah.

The bulk of the adult's share of the vocal score fell to Heather Orth as a merry Martha, Keith Pinto as an ebullient Dickon, and the ever reliable Sharon Rietkerk as Lily. However, it was the performances by young Katie Maupin (as Mary) and Tyler Groshong (as Colin) that anchored the show so nicely. A great deal of the credit for the production's success goes to music director, Lauren Mayer, and stage director Dyan McBride.

If one wonders how challenging it can be to find such strong young performers as Maupin (an alumnus of the Hillbarn Theatre's Conservatory) and Groshong (an alumnus of Peninsula Youth Theatre), it helps to remember that (a) Dyan McBride runs the company's Moon School for young talent and teaches musical theatre performance at San Jose State University, and (b) Michael Mohammed  directs the musical theatre workshop, opera, and musical theatre programs at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Brian Watson (Archibald) reads to his son, Colin (Tyler Groshong)
in a scene from The Secret Garden (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

If the crassness of our current social, political, and economic climate has you down in the dumps, I can’t recommend a more charming experience than The Secret Garden. Performances continue through December 24th at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: