Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Musical Stage Matters: North Coast 2005-14

North Coast Repertory Theatre produces one or two musicals a year; Ferndale Repertory Theatre used to do at least a couple, but in recent years has increased that number to something like a majority of their theatrical productions.

Nanette Voss-Herlihy, Kyle Ryan
 In addition, Redwood Curtain has done a few (I recall the outstanding performances of Kyle Ryan and Nanette Voss-Herlihy in their 2011 The Last Five Years) and Dell’Arte has done a couple for their summer shows (which I’ll save for later.)

 HSU does a big musical every other year, and lately has sprinkled in some smaller ones on the off years. And as I’ve said already, Humboldt Light Opera Company does a big musical every summer, and often a smaller one in fall or winter. But mostly it’s been our two self-described community theatres.

 One way to categorize musicals is a simple division between the traditional “song” musicals that include dialogue and action, and the opera-style musicals (sometimes called “sing-throughs”) in which most if not all of the dialogue is sung.

Craig Benson in Sweeney Todd 
The opera-style shows, a fairly recent trend, tend to be dramatic, if not melodramatic (reminding us perhaps that melo-dramatic literally means drama with melody.) This isn’t my favorite form, but a good show is a good show, and among the best examples locally are the outstanding Ferndale Rep's 2011 production of Sweeney Todd, and NCRT’s recent and very successful production of Les Miz. (The Les Miz review is probably the most recent—hence the last—time I noted that the lack of resources for elaborate staging often works to the benefit of local productions, getting them to the essence of the play and the storytelling.)

Another example of a contemporary sing-through is Next to Normal, which had an effective if muted production at North Coast Rep.  But like a lot of these musicals, it can be considered profound mostly in comparison with other musicals rather than other writing forms, including nonfiction. As much as I appreciated it, I have no desire to see it again.

 The song musicals can be dramatic but are most often comedies. They have the longer history in American theatre, and host most of the famous songs.  I tend more towards wit and sparkle than the sentimental, more Cole Porter than Rogers & Hammerstein.  But once again, a good show is a good show.  A really good production with exciting renditions of great songs is the ideal.

Fatal Distractions

 What makes a good production of a musical? It’s easier to say what a bad production is. Great singing elevates a production, but the occasional mediocre singer (especially if they can otherwise “sell” the song) rarely sinks a whole show. I can’t recall hearing that happen here.

 For a number of reasons (many of them logistical) shows here don’t excel in dancing, but the dancing that was included was seldom embarrassing. (There have been some real clunkers in live bands, though.)

Staging, lighting and sound are the usual culprits that ruin a show. When sound and lighting don't work as they should, they distract and drain energy. Sound is obviously crucial but the element that gets overlooked (pun intended) is lighting. People are never so wise as when they agree with your own observations, so I quote the writer William Goldman again“Most musicals need to be brightly lit and played as close to the footlights as possible so that the audience can see and hear them.” Especially the songs.

But whatever the combination of factors are, the musicals that fail are those that don't serve the play, the music or in particular the performers. And therefore they don't serve the audience. Here's an egregious example of one.  Unclear storytelling is especially deadly in the newer styles of musicals, the sing-throughs and those with more dramatic than comedic intentions.

Another example of these storytelling problems would be the recent HSU production of Coraline, in which the fantasy was not grounded in the most basic ways that create an intelligible story. (Lighting, sound and staging were also deficient in what arguably is a play with music rather than a musical. Impressive costumes are not ultimately enough.)   In the case of The Last Five Years at Redwood Curtain, the structure of the script is confusing, and needs special attention in production decisions.

I quote playwright Tom Stoppard (again):"Theatre is a pragmatic art form. It's a storytelling art form, and lives or dies by its storytelling."

 Bad storytelling erodes audience confidence and takes them out of the play. Bad lighting and sound diminish the power and the joy. They disrupt the magic and undermine the performances.  They are all fatal distractions.

Happier Memories
But let’s go back to the sunny side of the street. Among the shows I recall is the 2007 NCRT production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate with two of the memorable talents we had on North Coast stages for awhile, Minderella Willens and Darcy Daughtry. Phil Zastrow and Rigel Schmitt performing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was also a memorable delight.

 My first recollection of Mindy Willens (an HSU student at the time) was in NCRT’s 2005 production of Once Upon A Mattress, another happy memory. I wrote in part: "The music is pleasant, the actors all exude charm, and they're committed to their roles but don't try to do too much. As the aggravatingly vain Queen Aggravain, Xande Zubin-Meyer channels Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), and Steve Carter is a taller Harpo Marx as King Sextimus. Vince Farrar strikes the right poses but also humanizes the ironic Lancelot role of Sir Studley. Jordan Matteoli is well cast as the eager but innocent Prince Dauntless, Miles Raymer's stage presence and strong tenor anchors the action as the minstrel and Laura Hathaway has an affecting presence and attractive voice as Lady Larken.

 But this show belongs to Mindy Willens as Princess Winifred, who owns the stage from the moment she enters. Known as "'Fred," this Princess has a sweetly energetic assertiveness: She storms the castle by impulsively swimming the moat, and then is modestly embarrassed about it. With bright rolling eyes and a big voice, Willens grabs the audience and brings them cheerfully into the show."

Michael Thomas, Caitlin McMurtry
Guys and Dolls at NCRT in 2009 is memorable for David Powell (another bright star that passed through here) leading “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” and particularly for the performance of Andrea Zvalesko. In addition to leads Caitlin McMurtry and Michael Thomas, My Fair Lady had the irrepressible Bob Wells singing-- and dancing-- as Eliza's father.

There were other productions that impressed me at the time, such as Ferndale's A Funny Thing On the Way to the Forum and Monty Python's Spamalot, NCRT's Marat/Sade, Fiddler on the Roof and The Producers.  But these are the ones that linger.

 There was one show however that remains for me an anomaly: a musical I don’t particularly like (I hate the movie of it) with mostly forgettable music—but it is a NCRT production I’ve never forgotten. The show was Chicago. So I’m resurrecting my review of it, plus the review of NCRT’s 2012 Anything Goes with additional items. Some of those made it onto this blog, others are here for the first time.

Chicago at NCRT (2006)

 In a few months the musical Chicago will celebrate its tenth consecutive year on Broadway. With songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who wrote “New York, New York” and the songs for Cabaret ), it became the Oscar’s Best Picture of 2002. It is based on a straight play about two actual 1924 Chicago murder cases written by a reporter caricatured as “Mary Sunshine” in the musical version.

 But its theme—the criminal justice system as show business—came from famed choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse, who wrote and staged the first musical production in 1975. I’m guessing that we’re seeing his experience with his 1975 Chicago in his brilliant 1979 film, All That Jazz. You can certainly see Fosse’s combination of trenchant observation and bombastic cynicism as well as his style of choreography very clearly in the movie of Chicago, but I was turned off by its excesses, including the mechanically speeded-up dancing, like a Bollywood film. The play is structured as a series of Vaudeville acts, but the movie transforms them into extravagant dream sequences, a technique done a lot more effectively in Pennies From Heaven (1981).

 For me, Chicago works much better on a smaller scale, such as the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production, directed by Xande Zublin-Meyer. There’s a much stronger sense of the vaudeville period that’s present in the music, and if this version and how it’s performed in Eureka lacks some of the cynical edge, it also doesn’t hit you over the head with it repeatedly. The satire is still there, and since the idea (crime as show biz) is no longer novel, the audience seemed to get it from the songs and dialogue.

 The story concerns the fall and rise of Roxie Hart, a wannabe vaudeville performer who kills her partner in an extramarital affair, and Velma Kelly, a star in a sister act who kills her other half. Kimberly Hodel is a fetching, brassy Roxie, with a 1920s flapper look. Especially in one gyrating number in a shimmering gown, she’s Betty Boop brought to life.

 Jolene Hayes brings a strong voice and a hint of vulnerability to Velma. With her vocals and acting clarity, Dianne Zuleger as prison Matron Mama Morton keeps the story moving, as does Daniel Scott Marcus as the seedy Master of Ceremonies.

 After a few establishing set pieces, the show really comes alive with the entrance of Brad Curtis as Billy Flynn, the lovable hypocrite defense attorney. Curtis has a Broadway voice and presence, and the energy of this show seems to jump into high gear whenever he’s on stage.

 But the show-stealer has to be Jamie Obeso’s song as Mary Sunshine. It’s as if Alfalfa from the “Our Gang” comedies grew up to become a female impersonator.

 All the actors bring something special to their roles, and not just the principal ones. The choreography by Rebecca Rubenstein gives us less Fosse and more vaudeville, which works for me. Dianna Thiel’s costumes are especially imaginative. There’s a live band behind the performers, there are lots of songs, and the stage is often filled with a large, hard-working and committed cast.

Additional Note 2014: This review got a letter chastising me for not mentioning Anders Carlson.  I should have--I still remember his comic stepping through the spotlights. (But the review was one of two in the limited space of that particular week's column)  He's been interesting to watch over the years--he's developed from a comic with a set of Chaplin-like moves to a disciplined actor who can still let it fly when it's right for the part (as he did in the 2014 I Hate Hamlet.)

Anything Goes at NCRT 2012

 In the Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes, now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, Billy Crocker (played by Erik Standifird) is in love with young socialite Hope Harcourt (Keili Simmons Marble.) But he’s just the young assistant to a Wall Street patrician (Howard Lang), and she is engaged to a rich Brit, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Clayton Cook), because her mother (Toodie SueAnn Boll) craves financial security.

 They’re all sailing on an ocean liner to Europe except Billy, until he helps gangster Moonface Martin (David Simms) escape and  Moonface slips him the ticket meant for Snake Eyes Johnson, an even more important gangster.  So they’re all on the same boat, and it’s 1934—five years after the Wall Street crash. Maritime mayhem ensues.

 Also along for the ride is nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Molly Severdia) and her vamping companions, Virtue (Ashley Adams) and Chastity (Kelly Gordon.) From the second Molly Severdia takes the stage, the production comes alive. She has that 30s sophistication and eagerness for what comes next. She’s confident as the character and as an actor, with a lively interest in every onstage moment. It’s the star part—originally written for the 26 year old Ethel Merman—so it helps that she also has the voice to make the show’s most famous songs soar. And when they include “You’re the Top,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” and the title tune, you’ve got your money’s worth right there.

 But there’s more. Keili Simmons Marble is incandescent as Hope Hartwell, and shares that quality of being visibly alive to each stage moment. She also triumphs as the show’s choreographer. There are a few well-executed large ensemble dances --the tap-dancing “Anything Goes” would stop the show except it’s at the end of the first act, where the show stops anyway.

 But her attention to smaller movements in smaller groups (including some Busby Berkeley reminders) also helps advance the show in the best way—with pleasant surprises. She is an excellent dancer herself, and the few opportunities she has to move suggest what more might have been.

 Anything Goes has been revised and revived several times in its 78 years (so far,) with Cole Porter songs cannibalized from other shows. The NCRT show seems based on the 1987 and 2011 versions.

 The music, the wit of the lyrics and the script are obvious reasons it’s lasted, but there’s also the script’s structure and the opportunities it provides the cast. Often in such comedies, the mirth is in elaborating the stereotypical characters established at the beginning. But this show’s silly, mildly satirical and mostly logical plot is also fed by a succession of small character surprises and reversals.

So Brandy Rose as the sweetly loose gang moll Erma takes it up a notch in her big song in the second act, giving ultimate expression to her character. But Clayton Cook’s big song (also a high point) reveals a surprising side to the established Sir Evelyn that changes the story’s direction. (Brandy Rose also reveals comedic power. Anders Carlson nails his comic moments in the relatively small part of the ship’s Captain. Those two paired in a screwball comedy might be something to see.)

 Erik Standifird has the enthusiasm and strong tenor voice of the 1930s romantic lead. Veterans David Simms, Howard Lang and Toodie SueAnn Boll anchor the comedy, and Ashley Adams and Kelly Gordon dance at least as well as they vamp.

Others in this strong cast are Gino Bloomberg, Tyler Elwell, Evan Needham, Jessi Shieman, Luke Sikora, Rigel Schmitt, Eric Stiles, Candace Wase and Katie Wolter. Lauren Wieland directed with wit and efficiency, and probably more. Calder Johnson designed the engagingly bright and useful set and lighting. Jenneveve Hood’s costume designs are great to look at and they express the times, but most impressively, she designed to flatter each individual.

 Music director Molly Severdia and her assistant Tina Toomata met the challenge of the sometimes technically difficult songs. The backstage band members are Laura Welch, Molly Harvis, Jeremy Cotton, Dianne Zuleger, Gina Piazza, Val Leone and Tamaras Abrams. Within its limitations, this is a fine production of one of the best musical comedies ever. More than that, it is alive and joyous. There are many memorable moments in this show—both from Cole Porter and from this cast.

Additional Notes: It's the Top

There are few if any Broadway musicals older than Anything Goes that get produced anymore. In fact, only 3 previous shows are generally classified as modern musicals (Show Boat in 1927, The Band Wagon in 1930 and Of Thee I Sing! in 1931.)

 Songs have since been stolen from other Cole Porter shows for this version of Anything Goes, and the script is not exactly the same as the show that premiered in 1934. That script began with legendary Brits P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton but the Broadway version was quickly assembled by its director Howard Lindsay with a press agent named Russel Crouse. They were so successful at it that they themselves became a legendary Broadway writing team.

 The script was revised for the 1987 revival by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, Russel's son and the author of one of the great books on U.S. presidential campaigns and the press, The Boys on the Bus (1972). I knew him for a few years around then.

 Anyway, the changes in the latest, the Tony-winning 2011 version that’s on tour into 2013 seem to be in musical arrangements, etc. So I don't actually know who is responsible for my favorite bit of dialogue. Asked by a ship's officer if he'd seen infamous racketeer Snakeyes Johnson somewhere on the ship, one of the characters says he saw him at the mizzenmast. “ But this ship doesn’t have a mizzenmast.” “Oh. It must have been somebody else.”

 The constant in all this is Cole Porter. His songs have not changed. His music is timeless, but his lyrics are very topical—particularly in one of this show’s most famous songs, “You’re the Top.”  The lyrics haven't been revised, so they are still a kind of mini-tour of 1934. While some of the places and the famous people named in the song are still well known, others mostly aren’t.  Quite a few clever references go right by a lot of the audience nearly 80 years later. With each generation, more references are lost—and especially the reason that this person, product, etc. is “the top.”

Some survive—even millenials know Fred Astaire—but others are so very 1934 that they’re historical markers. For example, broccoli. When Severdia and Standifird come to that line (“you’re broccoli!”) they make a face, mirroring a contemporary audience’s sense that it's an icky vegetable that doesn’t make it to "the top."  But in 1934, it did: known in Italy, it wasn’t farmed commercially in the U.S. until the 1920s and broke the Italian language barrier in the 30s. So broccoli was quite fashionable in 1934.

Severdia and Standifird relieved audience anxieties by acting out such contemporary reactions to some references (their performance was a highlight of the North Coast Rep production.)  But they appeared to simply ignore other references, like Jimmy Durante, a showman who was famous from the 1920s through the 50s, and was often parodied into the 1960s.

In fact some lyrics are now so obscure that there are several online attempts to track down their meaning. There was a long and involved theory about  what “you’re a drumstick lipstick” could mean--maybe something that involved ice cream and kissing?  Then somebody uncovered an old ad that showed that Drumstick was the brand name of a quite fashionable lipstick in 1934.  So no secret code ring needed.

 Still, it isn’t necessary to know that moisture-proof cellophane was a modern miracle in the 30s to laugh at the exuberant brilliance of “You’re the National Gallery/You’re Garbo’s salary/You’re cellophane!” The strange alchemy of the topical and the timeless in a play that lasts is one of the wonders of theatre, as it is in other arts. So it’s a vital part of our theatrical ecology.

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