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:

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