Friday, November 28, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

A Christmas Story--the stage version of the cult movie--begins this weekend at Ferndale Rep. Dell'Arte kicks off its series of free Christmas shows this weekend at the Carlo. It's The Glasnost Family Holiday, a comic romp with a musical gypsy family. Then the show moves to various community locations--the schedule is posted at the Dell'Arte web site. She Loves You continues at North Coast Rep.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Little Shop of Ardors: She Loves Me

She Loves Me at the North Coast Repertory Theatre is a delight not because the show features classic songs, or the story has major surprises. It’s because NCRT, which usually does these nostalgic musicals well, has put together a polished production with an accomplished ensemble cast to express the show’s musical and character charms.

 This show by stage veterans Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) was an old-fashioned musical comedy even at its premiere. She Loves Me opened on Broadway in April 1963. “She Loves You” was released by the Beatles that August. That pretty much tells the tale: though there were a few classic shows to come, changing musical tastes and other factors meant this particular golden age of the Broadway musical was coming to an end.

 That first production was considered a flop, but the double album of its music kept the show alive. It became a staple of regional and community theatre, leading also to a somewhat more successful Broadway (and especially London) revival in the mid-1990s.

 In 1983 She Loves You was the first production of the brand new North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.  It’s now back on stage at NCRT to celebrate the theatre’s 25th anniversary year.

 Based on a play set in Hungary (which accounts for character names like “Arpad” and “Ladislav”), She Loves Me is set in a shop that sells perfumes, beauty creams and trinkets in an unnamed 1930s European city where unseen economic and political woes have no impact on sales or romance. Ignoring the Depression was common in 1930s film musicals, too, and crucial to their success.

 The romantic plot—two people fall in love through the mail with someone they’ve never seen, then unknowingly become involved in an antagonistic relationship with each other in real life—has been done so many times (as in Nora Ephron’s movie, You’ve Got Mail, which adds elements of the Tracy-Hepburn comedy penned by her parents, Desk Set) that it’s obvious from the first moments what’s going to happen, and to whom.

 So no surprises there, and no hit songs or rescued gems in the score. But the tunes are pleasant, and the lyrics deft and witty. (I envy these songwriters. “What did you did at the office today, dear?” “Oh, I rhymed ‘adolescent’ with ‘incandescent.’”)

 Most of the principal actors get at least one spotlight number, and they all shine. In the romantic leads, Caitlin McMurtry as Amalia is particularly winning, and Rigel Schmitt as Georg capably leads us through the story with his character’s ups and downs.

Phil Zastrow hits the character notes of shopkeeper Mr. Maraczek, from blustery authority to wistful retirement. Patrick Carlisle is convincingly reptilian as Kodaly, the perfume store Lothario.  Kimberlee Brown’s fine costuming is especially apt for this character: his polka dot bow tie and checked jacket are the definition of what once was called “snazzy.”

 Xande Zublin-Meyer entertains as the fetching Ilona, more a bemused modern than working class floozie. Ethan Needham is an appealing Ladislav, the timid clerk with a cosmic perspective, and Ethan Vaughan as the young Arpad is especially winsome, with his ability to express emotion in his postures. As usual, Anders Carlson makes the most of his one big scene, as the headwaiter who enforces his café’s “romantic atmosphere” with Prussian insistence. The café scene is also notable for some accomplished comic acrobatics.

 The unseen “orchestra” was economical and tasteful: Wally Cooper on synthesizer provided elegant variety, Laura Welch was admirable on piano (especially picking up her music box cues), and Bobby Amirkhan kept the pulse on bass. This instrumentation was very effective.

Directors Dianne Zuleger and Tom Phillips put together a show that flows and works as a whole, while constructing solid individual scenes with variety in staging, movement and acting. In addition to the musical solos, the harmonies and group numbers are crisp and affecting.

 The first act is about 90 minutes and feels long, perhaps due to the number of songs without a memorable hit (although Caitlin McMurtry can stop the show more than once.) But there are few if any slack moments in this production. The subplots and romantic byplay keep the story interesting, and the setting of the shop (with Cindy Brown’s serviceable set) is used well. Who could not be charmed by a store where the clerks sing sweet farewells to the customers? The Christmas shopping theme and an evocative Christmas number might help to brighten an otherwise anxious holiday season.

 As for that first production of She Loves Me at NCRT, there seems to be a dearth of documentation. So if anyone who was there—or was part of it—would like to share your memories, we’d love to hear from you.

Postscript: A week later, I was able to relay this response from one of the principals in that 1983 production:

“I was one of the leads in the NCRT premiere, directed by Roby Agnew,” writes Lisa Monet of Bayside. “My husband Rick St. Charles and I had recently moved here from San Luis Obispo where we'd been active in community theater…. During the period of rehearsals, (which took place in the remodeled Eagle House) I learned I was expecting our first child, Matt St. Charles. After that production, my musical focus turned to albums for children. We now have two children, and two national award-winning CDs, Circle Time, songs and rhymes for the very young, and Tingaleyo, a bilingual treasure trove of songs in Spanish and English, and plans for the upcoming release of four more titles.” 

 More information can be found at Meanwhile the current production of She Loves Me continues at NCRT in Eureka.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Elegance Made Casual

A new book on Fred Astaire and recent airings of Fred and Ginger musicals on TCM occasion the musings below on musicals and the magic of Astaire.

The Man for All Musicals

Generally speaking I'm not a fan of stage musicals, or their movie versions. The music of some of the old and much loved composers just makes me cringe, and I can't stand the excess and mostly phony sentimentality of the stories. The technical bombast and bizarre themes as well as the music of many newer musical don't thrill me either. As a reviewer, I try to avoid the ones I know I loathe, when I can. Why burden readers and be preemptively unfair to the production by clouding things with my own bad mood?

Yet there are some movie musicals I greatly admire, and musical movies that are among my absolute favorite films to watch repeatedly. I love the Beatles movies, and I'm an absolute sucker for The Glenn Miller Story. I caught it on TCM the other night and fell for it again--as phony a biography as it is. The previous night I caught the last half of The Gay Divorcee, one of the first Astaire-Rogers movies. Fred Astaire movie musicals are my Great Exceptions. They always provide delight, and at times they've been enthralling.

Joseph Epstein's new book on Fred Astaire (Yale University Press) suggests why it's possible for me to admire the Astaire musicals so much, while remaining unmoved by most other musicals. It's because these movies are together a singular phenomenon, in that they brought together talents that were each exceptional. "Nobody has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history," Epstein writes, but it happened with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, especially because of the composers who wrote especially for them (or really, for him): Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Together they did some of their best work. The list of classic songs that Astaire introduced is astonishingly long--"Night and Day," "The Way You Look Tonight," "They All Laughed," "Top Hat," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," etc as well as lesser songs that are still brilliant, like "I'd Rather Lead a Band." And then it was over--"bang!, pretty much vanishing forever."

Clustering is one thing, synergy is another. Porter and the Gershwins in particular recognized that Astaire's voice and singing style were perfect for their songs, and they wrote--wrote better, in fact--with that in mind. There were other fruitful coincidences: movie technology was finally up to the task of creating sparkling worlds of song and dance; Astaire and Rogers, whatever their difficulties, were a perfect screen pair, and in their best movies, they were surrounded by great comic role players, like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

Much has already been written about the particular magic of Fred Astaire. Epstein calls it his charm, which he defines as "elegance made casual." The challenge for each film was to sustain and spread that charm to the entire movie--the scripts, cinematography, sets and performances--for its entire length. There were several near-total successes--Top Hat being the closest to perfection-- but Astaire's charm and his dancing could overcome weaker elements, even weak songs, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of his signature dances occur in lesser films, mostly without Rogers. While Epstein gives short shrift to these, I happen to like The Sky's the Limit, Blue Skies, etc.

But such is the delicate balance of this magic that it's hard to pin down exactly what went wrong in some of the films that failed even for me, such as the two Astaire did with the actress he considered his best dance partner, Rita Hayworth. Epstein is not much help here. In fact, this book seemed generally badly written to me, and sloppily edited. I prefer the earlier Astaire and Rogers by Edward Gallafent (Columbia University Press), which is more complete, more factual and less interpretive, with lots more evocative photos.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jane Hill Returns with Getting It

After rescuing Opera Omaha and growing the Sacramento Philharmonic as executive director, Dell’Arte cofounder Jane Hill has returned to the North Coast, where she’s also known as a stage performer, dramatist and director.

 When she first presented her monologues collected in Getting It, she performed all four characters herself, making her costume changes on stage. In revisiting the piece for the Redwood Curtain production currently on stage at the Arcata Playhouse, she added a new character (as well as other changes to the text) and directs five actors, one per monologue.

 Margaret (played by Lynne Horrigan) is a middle-aged married career woman who has a memorably defining moment in a pole-dancing workout session. Lola (Susan Abbey) is a middle-aged divorced woman who describes her post-marriage journey, carrying forward the theme of sexuality and physical identity, but she also moves on to the theory and practice of service as a life commitment. Linda (the new character, played by Siena Nelson) is a singer-songwriter in her late 20s who describes events leading up to her divorce—as it happens, from the same man as Lola—which includes some satisfying tables-turning. It also includes a song by this Nelson sister.

 Agnes (Christina Jioras) is the self-justifying nursing supervisor at a convalescent care home, and Shirley (Tinamarie Ivey) is one of the patients, a wily 110 year old (well, 92 really, “but nobody's interested in any old woman unless she's over a hundred.”) She’s also “the world’s oldest living tap dancer,” who performs with a walker, living the philosophy of another patient who discovered the reason she’s still alive by studying the flowerbed outside her window: because she’s “still blooming.”

 I saw the show in its preview performance, when (ironically perhaps) it returned to being a four- character evening, due to a rehearsal accident that sidelined Christina Jioras, off getting treatment at curtain time. (She returned to perform Saturday, accompanied by a cane to compensate for a torn hamstring. Once again, evidence that theatre ain’t for the faint-hearted.)

 On a relatively bare set with a backdrop of four attractive screens suggesting the seasons, each character makes a public presentation—at a conference, an award ceremony (for Divorce Recovery Woman of the Year), a support group, a media tour of the convalescent home, and entertaining a local service club.

 The current phrase “getting it” signals the acquiring of an important and perhaps life-changing understanding. Something clicks, which usually involves recognizing facts in the outside world as well as internal insights. For four of these characters, “getting it” may be sudden, even violent, or the result of a series of experiences or insights, leading to action, usually related to marriage, identity and life purpose. (On the page, the exception is Agnes, the nursing supervisor, who seemingly doesn’t “get it” at all. But that’s the performance I didn’t see.)

 All five women have a connection (or two) to at least one of the others, and there’s a sixth woman we never meet who is important to what several of them “get.” Since the issues are mostly feminist, with a couple of the women taking decisive (even homicidal) action against unfaithful spouses, there is a built-in identity politics appeal to the evening. But it’s also replete with theatrical moments, humor and human insight.

 All the actors bring personality and dimension to the characters with their assured performances. Through the writing as well as the performances, we also recognize the characters we don’t actually see. With Jane Hill’s script and deft direction, this production of Getting It pleases and holds the audience’s interest, while offering insights and memorable moments to take home.

 I have some quibbles. It’s a brisk, economical evening, that may exact a cost in clarity and missed opportunities. The light touch that helps to keep it all positive may be too consistent. Themes remain contemporary, but some of the references seem dated. It’s awkward to comment on the part I didn’t see, but at least in the text, the character of the supervising nurse seems completely different from the others, jarringly one-dimensional and unsympathetic. How it plays in performance may be another matter.

 That said, it’s an illuminating and entertaining evening of theatre. The performances in particular are impressive and winning—and it’s a special pleasure to see Siena Nelson return to the stage.

 Getting It plays this weekend (Nov. 13-15) and next (Nov. 20-22.) This is another Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse, and there are three more scheduled next season. Meanwhile the search for a permanent RC home goes on—including a plea in the program and on their website for anyone with “a spare warehouse? A barn? An extended garage that seats at least 75?” The enticement is “rent money we don’t know what to do with!” Given the current realities of real estate, this might be an attractive offer, so the number to call is 443-7688, or

Thursday, November 6, 2008

As part of the Campus Dialogue on Race week, a production of The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe is being presented at Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus Thursday and Friday at 8 pm.

Redwood Curtain presents Getting It, written and directed by Jane Hill, at the Arcata Playhouse Friday and Saturday at 8. The production continues a Thursday-Saturday run through November 22. Jane Hill was a co-founder of the Dell'Arte Players and Dell'Arte School. This play, about five women at mid-life "and beyond," is performed by Susan Abbey, Lynnie Horrigan, Tinamarie Ivey, Siena Nelson and Christina Jioras. I'll be writing about it for the Journal next week.

Speaking of next week, next Thursday North Coast Rep opens the musical comedy She Loves Me, which was NCRT's first play 25 years ago.