KPBS AIRDATE: March 19, 1997
I must confess, it’s been a less than satisfying week in the theatre. To be sure, my plate was full. But it was kinda like one of those food festivals, where you think you’re gonna get the best of what every presenter has to offer. There was indeed something tasty about each offering, but at the end, I just didn’t feel sated or contented.
It all began with the new national tour of “A Chorus Line.” Now, everybody has tales and memories of this ground-breaking, record-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 show, perhaps questionably billed as “the best musical ever,” but unequivocally the longest-running show in Broadway history.
To paraphrase the play, all I can say about this production is, “Dance 10, singing 3.” The show holds up surprisingly well; nothing much has changed in the lives of the chorus dancers of Broadway musicals. And the dancing is still eye-popping. But director Baayork Lee, the show’s original Connie Wong and assistant to creator/director Michael Bennett, has an unfortunate penchant for whiny-voiced women, and to mix metaphorical and anatomical reference, the nasality stuck in my throat.
Next up was “The America Play.” I was really looking forward to this one, too. It’s the San Diego premiere of the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, who, as far back as 1989, was hailed by The New York Times as ‘the year’s most promising new playwright.’ Fritz co-artistic director Bryan Bevell has done it again: introduced an important young voice to our fair city. He did it with Nicky Silver, and now he’s brought us Parks, with her unique African American vision.
“The America Play,” admittedly the dramatist’s own favorite, tells the non-linear and unlikely story of The Foundling Father, a black gravedigger who so resembles Abraham Lincoln that he leaves his wife and children and heads out West, setting up a booth and charging folks a penny to shoot him, to re-create, over and over, the assassination of “The Great Man.” Parks’ writing is dense but spare, slangy, playful, punny, and most of all, jazz-like, with its repetitions and revisions that re-examine American and African American language and history.
The play is all about digging — for the past, for roots, for getting below the surface. The Foundling Father dominates Act One, and once again, Lamont Thompson is riveting. His performance is sly, subtle, humorous, moving and multi-layered. In the second act, the tone and characters change: we meet the wife and child, searching and digging, hoping to make up for the Foundling Father’s “lonely death and lack of proper burial.” Dee Knox is aptly calm and other-worldly as wife Lucy, and Christopher Wylie is antic (and of varying and indeterminate age) as son Brazil, but the pace and rhythm are so languorous as to be soporific, and we long for Thompson’s reappearance.
This play and playwright are not to everybody’s taste. The audience needs to do a little digging of its own. Kudos to Bevell for bringing this play our way, and staging it, as he usually does, with the utmost respect for the author and an omnipresent twinkle in his eye.
Only a block away from the Fritz, they’re singing a much different tune. The Coronado Playhouse has moved its successful, home-grown musical production uptown, to the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. “Kiss Them and Wish them Goodbye” is a clumsy title for a pleasant diversion, a musical with much more sung dialogue than it needs, written by Michael T. Rorah with book and lyrics by producer Mark Sickman.
Reportedly based on actual events in the early 1940s, the show tackles the trite and the true, from wartime separations, to infidelities at home and abroad, from families united to couples torn asunder, from the black market to local bigotry and the mortifying internment of Japanese-Americans. A lot of time, energy and love have obviously gone into this undertaking. The music is agreeable, the lyrics sometimes clever. The book needs paring and retooling, and it needs to trust the audience, not tell them everything that’s about to happen. But what this piece needs most is a more professional company, singers who can act and dance, and a director and choreographer to tell them what to do to make the whole musical sing.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.