Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Trying To Frame An American Moment

It doesn't matter whether someone fantasizes about discovering the key to happiness, the secret to success or the perfect diet. What often follows is a suggestion that, if only there was a way to bottle the results and market them to the public, a never-ending supply of money would just keep rolling in.

For creative minds, financial reward is very much a welcome result, but not always the main goal. Creating something new (or adapting someone else's work for a new artistic venture) offers personal as well as professional challenges and rewards.
  • Can artists use their creative talents to reshape an idea?
  • Can creative talents flex their artistic muscles to craft something that can bring joy and/or meaning to the lives of others?
  • Will a new work be doomed to failure or be able to live long and prosper as it builds a devoted following?
Many playwrights and composers have looked to American history and literature for source material. Some have composed operas about historical figures ranging from Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth "Baby Doe" Tabor, Harvey Milk and Lizzie Borden to Richard Nixon, Emile Griffith, Sister Helen Prejean, Malcolm X, and Carrie Nation. Others have been inspired by legendary characters such as Paul Bunyan as well as such beloved works as Of Mice and Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Great Gatsby, Washington Square, and Moby Dick; or, The Whale.

Two new pieces of musical theatre attempting to tell American stories recently drew audiences to San Francisco theatres.
  • One was the world premiere of an opera set during the California gold rush; the other told an intimate tale of illicit love in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the first half of the 20th century.
  • One was written for a full-blown orchestra of 67 musicians; the other features bluegrass music performed onstage by an ensemble of 10 musicians.
  • Although both shows boast creative teams with impeccable credentials, one set designer kept matters simple and fluid; the other filled the stage with a mixture of flown sets, skeletal door frames, and a mammoth tree stump.
  • One librettist found the heart of a story and clearly communicated it to the audience while the other fell so deeply in love with the material he discovered during his extensive research that he failed to heed William Faulkner's famous piece of advice: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
While both works aimed to capture a uniquely American moment and set it to music, they both depict what can happen when a heavily patriarchal culture threatens (and sometimes murders) women who dare to be their natural selves.

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Bright Star (the new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell currently playing at the Curran Theatre) offers audiences a bright new story with a refreshing Biblical parallel that sends people out of the theatre with contented smiles on their faces. Based on a true story, its protagonist is Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) who, as a rowdy teenager, got knocked up by her boyfriend, carried the pregnancy to term, and then had her baby forcefully taken away from her by the legal maneuvering of her boyfriend's arrogant father (the Mayor of Zebulon) and her own hyper-religious father.

Carmen Cusack stars as Alice Murphy in Bright Star
(Photo by: Nick Stokes)

The new musical received its world premiere from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego on September 28, 2014 followed by a brief run at the Kennedy Center in December of 2015 prior to opening on Broadway on March 24, 2016 at the Cort Theatre, where it ran for 109 performances. Throughout its development phase, early reports indicated that, during workshops and pre-Broadway tryouts, the show seemed very much like a labor of love.

Carmen Cusack stars as Alice Murphy in Bright Star
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

With its folksy score, Bright Star appeals to audiences with simple, believable strokes as its story unravels through a series of flashbacks. Its star, Carmen Cusack, readily admits that:
“Like Alice, my mom had a child (me) when she was in her teens, so it was easy for me to relate. Alice is born into this environment that doesn’t really fit her, and she has this need to sprout away from her community because she knows she has more to offer. On top of that, you have the Southern roots and the folk music, all of which is just in my bones. Edie’s lyrics to the opening number “If You Knew My Story,” go deep into my soul, to the things I encountered as a youngster being raised by a teenage single mom. It brought me back to all the things I had to overcome, to thinking that you’ll never be able to see your dream fulfilled when you come from a tiny, woodsy background. When I sang that song on Broadway for the first time it was surreal.”

Working on a unit set designed by Eugene Lee (with costumes by Jane Greenwood and lighting by Japhy Weiderman), director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes have sculpted Bright Star into a powerful love story darkened by the aggressive moves of misguided fathers whose greed and religiosity smother any concern for their children's happiness.

From the model train that travels back and forth on an elevated track above the stage to the discovery of a baby in a floating briefcase (by a goodhearted rural man whose only goal was to hunt frogs under the light of a full moon), Bright Star takes its time letting the audience in on its story's secrets until it can, at long last, reach a happy ending. In her program note, producer Carole Shorenstein Hays writes:
“What makes Bright Star such a powerful show is its irresistible, unabashed optimism. It’s much safer to hide your emotions behind sardonic wit than it is to expose yourself as hopeful, vulnerable, and above all, deeply human. Approaching the future with hope when everything around you is falling apart takes courage and grit (the qualities that make for great art). When I first saw Bright Star, I knew this was a show I wanted Bay area audiences to experience firsthand here at the Curran. This musical love letter to hope and resilience wears its heart right on its gingham sleeve and shows us that even during our darkest moments ‘the sun is gonna shine again.’”
A. J. Shively is aspiring writer Billy Cane in Bright Star
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Even though I'm not someone who listens to a lot of bluegrass music, I found it impossible not to be charmed by much of the score to Bright Star, which includes songs like "A Man's Gotta Do," "I Had A Vision," and "Firmer Hand/Do Right."

While the evening provides a showcase for the impressive musical and dramatic talents of Carmen Cusack, she gets strong support from Patrick Cummings as her first love (Jimmy Ray Dobbs) and A.J. Shiveley as Billy Cane, the young soldier whose path crosses Alice's later in life. As Alice's two employees, Jeff Blumenkrantz shines as Darryl Ames (reminding me of Richard Deacon's appearances as Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show) with Kaitlyn Davidson as Lucy Grant (Darryl's endearing female sidekick).

With orchestrations by August Eriksmoen and sound design by Nevin Steinberg, supporting members of the cast include Stephen Lee Anderson and Allison Briner-Dardenne as Alice's parents, a bullish Jeff Austin as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, David Atkinson as the man who helped raise Billy, and Maddie Shea Baldwin as the Billy's closest friend (and eventual bride) in Hayes Creek.

Not only does Bright Star begin by telling its audience that it has a story to tell, the musical's creative team does a splendid job of delivering the goods with remarkable fluidity. More than many new works, this show aces a crucial test of stageworthiness by making sure that its audience cares about its characters (a task that is easier said than done). Performances of Bright Star continue at the Curran Theatre through December 17 (click here for tickets).

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It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report that when the curtain finally came down on the performance I attended of Girls of the Golden West, I found myself wondering "Where is Wowkle when you really need her?" This lumbering new opera (with music by John Adams and a libretto by its director, Peter Sellars) is a co-production between the San Francisco Opera, the Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera. I don't expect it to have much of a life beyond the productions already scheduled by its co-producers.

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley in
a scene from Girls of the Golden West (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Ryan McKinney portrays Clarence in Girls of the Golden West
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

If one were to expand on Luigi Pirandello's concept of Six Characters in Search of an Author, it might be possible to subtitle Girls of the Golden West as Eight Characters in Search of a Librettist. Indeed, following in the footsteps of Ken Mandelbaum (whose most famous book is entitled Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops), at one point I even thought of naming this column "Not Since The Gospel of Mary Magdalene...."). As our beloathed President would tweet: "SAD."

On paper, the concept underlying Girls of the Golden West sounds intriguing. Composer John Adams has kept a cabin near the Northern California town of Downieville for several decades. He knows and has fallen in love with the terrain and its rich history.

Once the decision was made to focus on a particular segment of American history, Adams and Sellars took to researching the topic with relish. Why? The story of the California gold rush includes a nearly all-male society populated by optimists from the four corners of the world who headed to California as soon as they heard about the possibility of striking it rich. Some miners got rich overnight; others lost their newfound fortunes equally fast. When increased competition resulted in diminishing returns, some became brutally vicious toward the "others" in their midst.

Hye Jung Lee portrays the Chinese prostitute, Ah Sing, in
Girls of the Golden West (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

California history reveals that there was more than enough racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity to feed a dramatist's fancy. With the documents unearthed during their research perhaps there was simply too much good material. It seems as if Adams and Sellars became so infatuated with their research that they could not bring themselves to edit their work more severely (the opera could benefit immensely from 30-40 minutes of cuts).

The sad truth is that with Act I clocking in at nearly 80 minutes and Act II running approximately 90 minutes, Girls of the Golden West is a bloated exercise in tedium. Having attended numerous operatic world premieres over the past four decades, perhaps the biggest surprise is how consistently the beauty of their voices and the solid technique of the featured young singers rose above the music Adams gave them to sing.

Although Adams insisted on some amplification in the pit (the soloists also wore headsets), I'm skeptical that electronic enhancement did much to make the composer's music more interesting (at one point I found myself wondering if some of the score could be recycled for a submarine movie). Nonetheless, I tip my hat to conductor Grant Gershon and sound designer Mark Grey for making the most with what they were given.

What sets this opera's libretto apart from many others is that it is made up entirely of historical texts discovered during the creative team's research. According to the composer:
"The problem is that the stories are all told from the white perspective and we're sort of turning that upside down and getting the women's point of view and the Mexicans' point of view. It's not just an academic exercise, it's actually a very thrilling human experience to do this."
And yet, the final product seems very much like an academic exercise that worships research at the expense of stageworthiness. In an era when the theatre community is struggling to deal with issues of cultural appropriation, it's ironic that (with the notable exception of costume designer Rita Ryack) the creative team is composed entirely of white men. As Mrs. Higgins admonished her esteemed son upon learning that Henry and Colonel Pickering had conspired to bring Eliza Doolittle to Ascot for a test run, "You're a pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll."

Though an attempt by choreographer John Heginbotham to stage Lola Montez's famous "spider dance" atop a gigantic tree stump underwhelms, the aria sung by Ned Peters based on a famous speech by Frederick Douglass (entitled "What to a Slave is the 4th of July?") is one of the high points of the score. Lorena Feijóo appears as the controversial Lola Montez.

Making impressive San Francisco Opera debuts are Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, Davóne Tines as Ned Peters, and Ryan McKinny as Clarence. Returning singers doing exceptional work include Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon, Hye Jung Lee as the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, the sultry-voiced J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia (a Mexican woman who is lynched by an angry mob), and Elliot Madore as Ramón. One looks forward to seeing and hearing these artists on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in future seasons.

Elliot Madore as Ramón and J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia in a
scene from Girls of the Golden West (Photo by: Stefan Cohen)

Although the contributions of set designer David Gropman and lighting designer James F. Ingalls go a long way toward creating an atmosphere befitting a forested section of the Sierra Nevadas, special praise goes to San Francisco Opera's long-time chorus director, Ian Robertson, for his stellar work on Girls of the Golden West with the male chorus. There's no doubt there are many interesting stories to be told from the time of the California gold rush. Unfortunately, as both librettist and stage director, Peter Sellars did a disappointing job of trying to tell them.

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