KPBS AIRDATE: October 19, 1994
(MUSIC… Theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”)
The good, the bad and the ugly pretty well sums up this week in theater. Two musical road shows rolled into town, and one local drama about the AIDS epidemic has some ugly facts placed in a beautiful production.
The very, very good part of the week was “Crazy for You,” a new/old musical inspired by “Girl Crazy,” written in 1930 by George and Ira Gershwin, and mounted on Broadway in 1992 to tremendous critical acclaim. The story-line is silly beyond words, as only old musicals and modern movies can write them.
A rich New York guy falls for a poor, small-town girl, and they live happily ever after, in Deadrock, Nevada, but not before he saves the town by refurbishing the old theater and staging a Ziegfeld-style follies that revives the spirit and the economy. The story is more than salvaged by the incredible score (songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “Nice Work If You Can Get it” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”). And the production — outstanding. Five hundred glorious costumes, and some of the best choreography, singing and dancing you’ve ever seen. As an extra added bonus, the multi-talented stars are home-grown: Beverly and Kirby Ward, son and daughter-in-law to Starlight’s long-time directing duo, Don and Bonnie Ward, gave the production believable chemistry and a fabulous feeling of local pride.
From there, it was a drive north but a long way down to the theatrical opener at the new California Center for the Arts, Escondido. It’s hard to miss with “Guys and Dolls,” the brilliant, funny, Tony-grabbing 1950 Frank Loesser musical. Everything about the show is right, and everything about this production is wrong. It makes a feeble attempt to emulate the spectacular 1992 Broadway revival, but it looks like a rinky-dink, basement-budget mishmash.
This is a non-union, non-Equity production, and it shows. Everyone is miscast. The center-stage females shift bumpily from their chest voices to their head voices, and none of the leads can act. Worst of all, it’s not even vaguely humorous. Also making its San Diego debut is the 12-acre Escondido Center and its 1500-seat concert hall. The look is gorgeous. But the theater design leaves a lot to be desired. The rows are too close, there’s no access from one side to the other, and there are so many staircases, the place could’ve been designed by M.C. Escher. Maybe the show just set my teeth on edge. I certainly hope the November theatrical offering, “Evita,” can rise above.
The SDSU Drama Department has certainly managed to rise above and meet a daunting challenge in its staging of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.” First produced in 1985, the controversial piece was one of the first to confront the AIDS crisis head-on.
Kramer, the activist-provocateur, has written forcefully of his own experiences, forming the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and then being banned from it, agitating New York Mayor Ed Koch and his own compatriots by exposing the government’s infuriating denial and the gay community’s refusal to consider even temporary sexual abstinence.
Rick Simas’ taut staging heightens the tension. Set changes are made by a somber, masked-and-gloved cadre in scrub-suits. With each scene, there is a growing number of San Diego names projected on the rear wall, dramatizing the mounting AIDS death-toll. Guest Equity actor Barry Mann is riveting as the play’s centerpiece, the angry young writer Ned Weeks. The rest of the cast is dead-on.
What’s most disturbing, of course, is that, ten years later, nothing much has changed. And that makes the piece a fitting addition to AIDS Awareness Week on campus. In a chilling postscript, current and projected statistics are recited by the cast. Almost a quarter of a million have died so far. You owe it to yourself and to your society to see this play; it’s not just about them any more.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.