Friday, September 24, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

If it’s major league baseball playoff time, it’s time for Jeff DeMark’s baseball show, Hard as Diamond, Soft as the Dirt. It was at the Arcata Theatre Lounge last year but this time DeMark is accompanied by The Delta Nationals several blocks away at the Arcata Playhouse in the Old Creamery building, on Saturday September 25 at 7:30 p.m. And this year you can also take the show home: a DVD of the performance of three years ago will have its official release at this same event. More information:

David Powell, singing star of the summer's hit Blue Lake: The Opera, performs the music of his Boston Conservatory teacher, composer Mohammed Fairouz, at the Arkley Center on Sunday at 5 pm.

Continuing: Company at North Coast Rep and Moonlight and Magnolias, final weekend at Redwood Curtain. Both are reviewed in posts below.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sondheim's Company at NCRT

Below is a slightly different version of my review of Sondheim's Company now at North Coast Rep.

Bachelor Bobby’s 35th birthday is celebrated by his married friends at the beginning of Company, the Steven Sondheim musical now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. That makes Bobby five years younger than this musical, which had its premiere Tony Award-winning run on Broadway in 1970. Though the NCRT show seems based on the revived and apparently revised 1995 version, there are aspects of this earlier origin that still set this musical apart.

After costly late 1960s failures, Broadway musicals were open to experimentation. One prescription was to make them more contemporary in content, with subjects and treatment that reflected real issues of that tumultuous time. Another was to become more contemporary in form, acknowledging non-naturalistic trends revolutionizing non-musical theatre ( Theatre of the Absurd, Beckett, Albee, Pinter, etc.) and the related attention to earlier European influences (especially Brecht), which were coming to New York on stage but also in foreign films, not only the 60s French New Wave and British comedies but film classics made in the 50s and before, but not widely available in the U.S. until the 60s.

Finally there was the call (championed by an influential New York critic or two) for new approaches to the music in musicals, or at least new blood. It had often been said that while popular music had been transformed in the decade of the British Invasion, Motown, Dylan and folk rock, etc., the music in musicals was lost in the past.

So in 1970, Company comes. With book by George Furth, it has no single story in traditional narrative terms, and even time doesn’t progress in expected ways. For example, Bobby’s birthday is celebrated three times, each with slight variations, but they may all be that same 35th. There are other story aspects that contradicted expectations then, and still do. Critic Frank Rich later characterized the overall approach as Brechtian, presumably meaning the famous alienation effect. (Sondheim later agreed with this characterization.) It’s probably best for today’s theatregoers to understand this going in. But it's interesting that while this approach continues to influence all kinds of theatre, it hasn't become standard. People still expect linear time (or at least clearly demarcated flashbacks) and a story through-line.

Other innovations have become more familiar. By dealing with the holy cow of marriage frankly and ironically, this show opened the musical to new possibilities (and paved the way for Woody Allen.) While its observations sometimes seem time-bound, there’s a lot that’s apparently universal. Steven Sondheim’s musically sophisticated mixing of classical and popular influences is comfortably postmodern today, though back then it was just being more like Paul McCartney.

Sondheim at that point was a successful lyricist (West Side Story, Gypsy) and composer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), but Company defined what would be forever known as Sondheim.

At NCRT, the set by Daniel Lawrence is composed of handsome marbled but monochromatic platforms of various heights, with a backdrop of a city skyline. Director Tom Phillips arranges and nimbly moves a large cast across spaces representing various apartments and other locales in Manhattan in the mid 1990s: five married couples and three of Bobby’s girlfriends.

The 1970 Broadway production was characterized by Michael Bennett’s lavish dances (he later did A Chorus Line), and the most recent 2006 version (which local Sondheim fans may have caught on PBS) by the novelty of the cast also being the orchestra. This NCRT production has neither. Nor can it match the edginess or the New York cynicism. The North Coast is just too nice. Frankly, I’m not complaining.

Even with a certain dramatic slackness, this production uses the show’s basic form—a series of scenes, with each couple having at least one—to provide notably enjoyable individual moments. Among them, there’s Bobby’s three girlfriends (played by Molly Severdia, Lisa McNeely and Katy Curtis) doing 1940s Andrew Sisters harmonies and 1920s dance steps in their song, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” There’s the well-executed coupling-by-karate, performed by Megan Caton and Jasper Anderton. There’s a funny first pot-smoking experience with Caitlin McMurtry and Frederic Belanger. There’s the dynamic performance and show-stopping voice of Katy Curtis as the youngest girlfriend Marta, singing “Another Hundred People.” Marta idolizes New York as a woman all in black at the end of the bar crying. In a subtle (perhaps Brechtian) touch, she later anonymously lives the image.

There’s Christina Comer (of NCRT’s recent Gypsy) revealing yet another talent—for screwball comedy—with a hilarious, Carole Lombardian scene in a wedding dress. Dianne Zuleger (also the show’s music director) performs the most storied of Company’s songs—“The Ladies Who Lunch”—with raw verve. Kevin Sharkey has the thankless task of playing Bobby, the supposed central character who especially in this production is mostly an uncertain cipher of sincerity, defined by the shifting expectations and projections of his married friends. His progress towards definition is at best cumulative. But when he defines his own emotions and expresses them, particularly in his final song (“Being Alive”), Sharkey delivers.

The remaining cast members--Shaelan Salas, Evan Needham, Craig Benson and Daniel Kennedy--have their character and vocal moments as well. The orchestra of Justin Ross, Joe Severdia, Julie Froblom, Hilson Parker and Molly Adams play a deft and fittingly understated accompaniment, visible just in shadows behind a half wall at the back of the stage. Lauren Wieland provided the realistic costumes, David Tyndall some tasty lighting.

Company continues at NCRT Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, with three Sunday matinees and one Thursday night performance.

This show opens NCRT’s 27th season, which will also include Charlie’s Aunt, My Fair Lady, Othello, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and The Kitchen Witches by Caroline Smith.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

War on Tara at Redwood Curtain

The following is a slightly extended version of my Journal review of Moonlight and Magnolias, which runs one more weekend at Redwood Curtain. The additions are mostly a little more Gone with the Wind lore. The published version contains one slight error: while U.S. standard spelling--and spell-checks--decree that "traveler" has but one "l," the title of the show based on H.G. Wells followed the 1890s British spelling, so it is indeed The Time Traveller.

Moonlight and Magnolias, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is a play about a movie. In playwright Ron Hutchinson’s fanciful retelling, the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind emerged from a marathon five day session of invention, fueled only by bananas and peanuts, with producer David O. Selznick acting out scenes with his new director, Victor Fleming, while his new screenwriter, Ben Hecht typed away, between complaints, fights and paeans to the wonder of the movies.

You remember the movie—Rhett Butler, Scarlet O’Hara, the plantation of Tara, Civil War, tomorrow is another day, frankly my dear... An almost accidental Hollywood classic as fabled for its tortured history as for the way it tortured history.

As the play begins, the movie is in crisis. Obsessed with the epic he’d pinned his future on, Selznick had just fired his first director (George Cukor, of The Philadephia Story, The Women, Adam’s Rib, etc.) and had a pile of scripts that weren’t working. He pulled action director Victor Fleming off the picture he was completing (a little film called The Wizard of Oz) and hired former newspaperman Ben Hecht, a versatile screenwriter (Scarface, The Front Page, Wuthering Heights) valued for speed as well as quality.

Their manic writing session in paradigmatic Hollywood practically breeds comedy, from one-liners to falling-down farce. Hecht hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s huge best-selling novel, but that was no barrier. “You’re butchering the script!” director Fleming cries. “I’m here to butcher the book,” Hecht retorts. “I’ll leave it to you to butcher the script.”

Hutchinson glues the bits with social significance: Hecht worries about the portrayal of blacks, and chides Selznick for not seeing the parallels with the treatment of Jews in Germany just before World War II as well as in the U.S. Beverley Hills, Hecht points out, was developed as a place where rich Jews could live because they were kept out of L.A.’s choice neighborhoods. Besides the gently cynical Hollywood humor, there are soliloquies on the movies, trembling—like Hollywood movies themselves—between the insightful and the sentimental.

The three main actors at Redwood Curtain are terrific. As Fleming, Ron Halverson is funny to watch, and as Hecht, Jerry Nusbaum is funny to listen to. As Selznick, James Floss looks and carries himself like a 1930s man, which produces all the period credibility the play needs. Floss, who as an actor isn’t seen enough here, gets a line about the movies being the one real time machine, a fortuitous reminder of his signature H.G. Wells portrayal in his one-person show, The Time Traveller. Halverson, also long absent, is another actor to see more often.

An actor I’ve admired in musicals, Andrea Zvaleko plays the smaller role of Selznick’s secretary, and while she performs ably, the character’s part in all this remains puzzling. At the first preview, the production directed by James Read was still finding its timing, but even then, the start of the second act suggested it could get funnier with each performance.

The production is enlivened by Daniel Nyri’s sets, Catherine Brown’s costumes, Michael Burkhart’s lighting and Jon Turney’s sound design.

Now you’ve seen the play—what was the reality? Hutchinson’s general history is pretty good, but like a Hollywood movie, he fudges for effect. In the play, the trio debate how to handle the scene in which a main (white) women character gives birth and the slave girl midwife is slapped. In fact, George Cukor had already shot this scene as it appears in the movie. The playwright squeezes some laughs out of the three stumbling towards the movie’s most famous line, but “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was already in the Margaret Mitchell novel. It’s possible if unlikely that Selznick was the one who added the “Frankly.”

Also like a Hollywood movie, the play and this production give us basically likeable characters, though their models maybe weren’t. While there were all-night sessions over two weeks (not five days), the diet of bananas and peanuts Selznick enforces in the play lacks his key ingredient: Dexadrine. Apart from reputedly being an overbearing egomaniac, Selznick was a speed freak seen licking bits of crushed Benzedrine from his own hand. Hecht feared for his sanity and fled.

The play has Fleming saying he needs this success so he doesn’t have to go back to being a limo driver. The real Fleming was a former race-car driver and veteran cameraman as well as director, also known as virulently anti-Jewish.

Hecht was a prolific and valued screenwriter, but his basic contribution to Gone With the Wind seems to have been the same as another of its contributors, Scott Fitzgerald: both told Selznick to go back to Sidney Howard’s original script, which had ballooned to 800 pages basically because Selznick insisted on adding scenes. Whatever his views on this movie, Hecht did become one of the strongest voices in America warning of the Holocaust, and a Civil Rights activist.

Fleming was also openly homophobic, as was the movie's male star, Clark Gable, though there was some rumored homosexual activity in his past. But it was Gable's rebellion against director George Cukor--essentially because he was gay--that got Cukor fired. None of this is mentioned in this play. Nor is the reputed racism (Fleming again), though it was Clark Gable who insisted that the African American cast members were treated as equals on the set. He was good friends with Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black recipient of an acting Oscar; their scene together is generally lauded as one of the best in the movie.

Among the sources for this background are Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell, and George Cukor: A Double Life by Patrick McGilligan. But as these books contradict each other on some points, let's just say it's Hollywood lore.

Friday, September 17, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep opens the Sondheim musical Company this weekend, Thursday to Saturday at 8. Shows continue Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, with Sunday matinees on Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10. Also a 8 pm Thursday performance on Oct. 14.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at Redwood Curtain. My review in the Journal is here. I'll try to post a longer version here soon.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Moonlight and Magnolias, a comedy by Ron Hutchinson about a crisis in making the epic film Gone With the Wind, opens at Redwood Curtain in Eureka this weekend. Directed by James Read, it features James Floss, Jerry Nusbaum, Ron Halverson and Andrea Zvaleko. Previews are Thursday and Friday, with premiere and reception on Saturday at 8. Performances continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through September 25, with a 2pm Sunday matinee on September 19.