By Pat Launer
Award shows that were moving or classy
And songs by the Divine One, Sassy.
THE SHOW: SASSY: Sarah Vaughan, the Divine One , the West coast premiere of a bio/concert by San Diegan Calvin Manson, founder/artistic director of the Ira Al dridge Repertory Players. The play premiered in May at the Germantown Theatre Center in Philadelphia . The plucky African American theater group, which lost its pleasant little North Park performance space in 2006, is returning to a dinner theater format once again at Caesar’s Café in downtown San Diego
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Sarah Lois Vaughan (nicknamed “ Sassy “ and “ The Divine One “), was considered to be one of the greatest singers of the 20th century (she lived from 1924 – 1990 ).Her career spanned 50 years, and no less a vocalist than Ella Fitzgerald called her “the world’s greatest singing talent.” Born in Newark , NJ , to a laundress and a carpenter (also an amateur guitarist), Vaughan began playing piano and singing in church at age 7. In her teen years, she snuck out to nightclubs to play and sing. She dropped out of her arts/magnet high school to perform, and soon took first place during one Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem , singing “Body and Soul.” Bookending her career, Vaughan opened for Ella Fitzgerald in 1943, and her final studio recording was made with that same vocal legend 46 years later. (But that story doesn’t appear in the show).
The rest of Vaughan ’s life is a series of ups and downs, professional successes and personal disappointments, including a string of men and marriages. Her commercial success peaked in 1959 with “Broken Hearted Melody,” a song she considered “corny,” but which nonetheless became her first gold record and a regular part of her concert repertoire for years to come. The song doesn’t appear in the show, but 1959 is the year in which Sassy is set. And though we don’t learn very much about the life, we hear lots of Sassy’s songs, 21 of them, to be precise, some totally anachronistic for the setting. Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” for example, wasn’t written until 1973. And there are other such inconsistencies in the show, which is basically a cabaret concert, like most of Manson’s creations: An Evenin ’ with Billie; Dear Ella; Raisin’ the Rent; and 5 Shades of Blues. At several points on opening night, the performer, Ayanna Hobson, obviously feeling the heat in the room, said “Am I havin ’ a hot flash?” Acceptable ad lib – but Sassy was only 35 in 1959! The show evokes no emotional journey, other than the songs themselves, and there’s no narrative arc. And the written program needs some serious editing/typo-correction. But the heart and soul, intent and passion are there. And the music. And that’s what you come for. (The Mediterranean dinner isn’t bad, either).
THE PLAYER/THE PRODUCTION: We’re in Chicago , at Mr. Kelly’s Nightclub. The boisterous Manager (teasing Anthony Bell) introduces Ms. Vaughan, who takes the stage and takes charge, while admitting (repeatedly) to shyness and discomfort in talking to large groups or reporters. Mostly, she just sings… and tells a few stories from her life between songs, mostly not in any discernible chorological progression. There’s a little off-color banter between Sassy and the Manager, and a staged Q&A and song-request section (Manson himself made a request, from the back of the house). Nice response to her self-posed inquiry, ‘Where do the sounds in scat come from?’: “I go roaming through the jungle of oohs and aahs .”
The audience is seated at tables that flank the small stage (so shallow, Hobson nearly fell off at one point), with dinner served before the show. New management, so no liquor license yet, but it’s expected during the run. The nightclub atmosphere is easy to imagine, given the seating, the dim lights, the camaraderie. This is an aptly friendly, cozy setting for an intimate performance. And though there are too many songs packed into the two chock-full acts, most of the numbers are knocked out of the park by Hobson, who’s an IARP regular, a charming presence with a multi-octave vocal range. Okay, she doesn’t have the full-on chops of The Divine One, but who does? Her smoky, sultry lows are especially resonant, but in songs like the show-ending “Sassy Blues,” she swoops and glissandos from the top to the bottom of her range, scatting along the way. Terrific! She nails a good deal of Vaughan ’s signature ornamentation and bluesy/jazzy variations on melody. Sometimes she sings a capella , sometimes just with the piano (music director Vick Kemp on keyboards) and or drums ( Al Torre ) or even bass (Janette Green). Each musician gets a jazzy moment in the sun. But it’s tenor sax Earl Vaults who blows the place away, obviously relishing Hobson’s vocal styling, whether he’s playing or not. And when he’s playing, he capers and cajoles, musically ‘conversing’ with the singer in the best jazz tradition. His solos are especially strong in ” Al l of Me,” “Lullaby of Birdland ” and “Hues of Blues” (not listed in the program). Hobson’s vocal highlights include her slow, sensual “Lover Man,” dusky “Misty,” simple/slow “My Funny Valentine” and tender “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.” And that “Sassy Blues” finale sends you out knowin ’ you been sung to.
THE LOCATION: Ira Al dridge Repertory Players at Caesar’s Café, 801 C Street , downtown San Diego , through July 1
EVENTS OF THE WEEK:
… The reading of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, which was part of the 14th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival , was a raging success. It was such a great cast to work with – David Ellenstein, Tom Zohar, Chris Williams (who came in from Phoenix to participate), Debra Wanger (who came out of baby-retirement to be there), and Jack Axelrod (who came down from L.A. for our show and The Sunshine Boys the next night). Matt Scott was excellent reading the (copious) stage directions, and Glenn Paris did a marvelous job directing. We all had a blast; my mother was there, watching me play a Jewish mother and for the first time, she recognized the similarities! This is, I think, Neil Simon’s best play, with less shtick and fewer caricatures, more conflict, and deeper, darker, more intense interactions than many of his more superficial works. Playing Kate, I got to take some rich emotional journeys, and it was sheer delight. Maybe this family will reconvene some time soon!
…JACK IN THE (WINNER’S) BOX… Well, Jack O’Brien exceeded all expectations at the 61st annual Tony Awards. He won his third Tony – for directing the magnificent trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, and he was, as always, most gracious in his acceptance. “Let’s have no more nonsense about the state of American theater,” he said, thanking playwright Tom Stoppard for giving him “the ride of my life…. [ now ] I know what Everest feels like.” In accepting the award for Best Play, Stoppard talked extensively about Jack and his direction of three Stoppard productions at Lincoln Center , saying, “You can’t imagine what I owe him… But if you’ve seen Coast of Utopia , you can imagine.” Jack made all San Diego proud. It was quite a year for him; after opening the third part of the Stoppard trilogy, he directed Puccini’s one-act opera trilogy, Il Trittico , at the Metropolitan Opera. ( fyi : Jack’s other two Tonys were for the fluffy musical Hairspray in 2003 and Shakespeare’s Henry IV in 2004. You’ve gotta admit: The man has a RANGE ).
It was a big night for Coast of Utopia , which won more Tonys – seven — than any other straight play in American theater history. When Jennifer Ehle picked up her award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play, she mentioned former San Diego favorite Richard Easton, quoting Stoppard in calling him “a National Treasure.” Coast has already provided fertile fodder for Gerard Al essandrini , who launched his special summer retrospective this week: Forbidden Broadway: The Roast of Utopia .
An armload of Tonys (eight) went to Spring Awakening, the coming-of-age rock musical based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German expressionist play; the musical features a score by Grammy-nominated recording star Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater . Spring swept all the major musical theater categories, including Best Musical, Score, Book , Choreography (by acclaimed modern dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones), direction (Michael Mayer), orchestration and Featured Actor (John Gallagher). The two shows combined took half the Tonys of the evening. There was no single host for the event, and the entertainment featured an enticing number from Spring and a killer turn by Tony winner Christine Ebersole as Edie Beale, wacky relative of Jacqueline Kennedy, in Grey Gardens . The rest of the performances were less impressive, though it was pretty cool to see the cast of A Chorus Line doing their thing in the street outside Radio City Music Hall (when was that taped? At 2am??).
Another San Diego/Tony connection was director John Doyle, who won the Tony in 2006 for his knockout direction of a highly imaginative Sweeney Todd revival. This year, his production of another Sondheim favorite, Company, won for Best Revival of a Musical. Doyle will be in San Diego this fall, to open the Globe’s 2007/2008 season with A Catered Affair, a world premiere musical written by and featuring the inimitable Harvey Fierstein .
… Speaking of San Diego connections, did you know that best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Sacred Suns,” currently #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List) obtained his medical degree right here at UCSD? A native of Afghanistan , the 42 year-old began practicing internal medicine in 1996 in the San Jose area, while dabbling in writing as a hobby. Then, a trip to his native country inspired him and changed his life. Now, with 4 million copies of “Kite Runner” in print, and a movie due out in November, and his new book only increasing his skyscraper-high profile, he’s become an active, vocal humanitarian advocate for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. Impressive all around. Can’t wait to dive into the second book.
… The Stars were out this week … at the San Diego Performing Arts League’s 16th annual STAR Awards event that honors the 20,000 volunteers who keep San Diego ’s performing arts organizations humming. The highlight of the evening, attended by 775 theater-lovers and supporters, was the introduction speech for the Gold Star Honoree, Dolly Woo, 30-year volunteer and now board member of the La Jolla Music Society. Christopher Beach, the Music Society’s director, spoke from the heart, with warmth, affection and humor. Some of the 73 honorees, volunteers representing 65 performing arts organizations, were arts-loving, impressively committed couples who are highly visible in the theater community: Melissa and Manny Fernandes , Ree and Maurice Miller, Trina and Ted Kaplan, Jack and Judi Missett . Proceeds from the event benefit the League, the region’s only umbrella organization dedicated to promoting and advancing San Diego ’s diverse performing arts. Congrats to all for helping keep the arts alive and vibrant in San Diego !
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Timing is everything… Al l in the Timing, the hilarious ion theatre reprise production of six short, funny, intelligent playlets by David Ives, has outgrown its current downtown space. The excellent and highly popular show is going on temporary hiatus, while the producers procure a larger venue… Watch this space for details.
… The Puppets Are Coming, The Puppets Are Coming… Tickets are now on sale for the West coast premiere of Avenue Q, the wonderful, clever Tony Award-winning musical with “full puppet nudity,” brought to us by the Old Globe Theatre. Don’t miss it! June 30-August 5 at the Spreckels Theatre. Tix available through the Globe ( 619-23-GLOBE), or Ticketmaster ( 619-220-TIXS) or the Spreckels Theatre (619-235-9500) .
And, if you’re into puppet theater for adults, check out a local production: Goldilocks, The Nursing Home Version , designed, created and produced by The San Diego Guild of Puppetry/Puppetry Center of San Diego. Interestingly, this new show is partly underwritten by grants from The Jim Henson Foundation, which assiduously disavows any connection to Avenue Q, though its creators were former Muppeteers . Goldilocks is performed with shadow, rod and bunraku -style puppets, accompanied by projected images. At Diversionary Theatre, June 21-24 only. 800-954-6696.
…Year of the Lynx… Lynx Performance Theatre has been named Best Progressive Theatre in San Diego Magazine’s annual ‘Best Of’ list. Following their most recent production, How I Learned to Drive, thanks to their one ticket/one dollar donation plan, they donated $438 to the San Diego Polinsky Children’s Center, a temporary emergency shelter for children and adolescents at risk for child abuse…. Lynx is currently working on Assunta , a multi-media one-act play written and directed by Lynx founder/artistic director Al Germani , about his Neapolitan Grandma and her “trials and tribulations worthy of a Godfather epic – and yes, the Mafia was involved.” Germani is planning for a feature film based on the story, too.
… Matt-News: Actor/writer Matt Thompson’s latest creation, Nobody’s Perfect, has just been released through Brooklyn Publishing. To show his publisher a little faith and confidence, he’s asking San Diego theater fans to buy a copy or two. The play is ten minutes long and costs just $4.50. So, Matt begs, support your local starving writer. Go to www.brookpub.com and search the play title.
… A day of creativity and compassion… “Art with Heart” is the name of a local art fair and festival, with food, wine, music and artwork, to be held this weekend in the heart of Kensington. It’s a benefit for Dress for Success San Diego, which helps low-income women find self-sufficiency through career development and job retention. The work of more than 25 artists – including me! – will be displayed (I submitted a pop art acrylic painting). A day of fun, art, music and helping others; what could be better? Saturday, June 16, 2-7pm at the intersection of Adams Ave and No. Talmadge Drive . www.artwithheartfestival.com
… Banned Play update… A few months ago, I wrote about Voices in Conflict, an original student play about the Iraq war that was banned by the school principal in Fairfield , CN . Well, three months after that fiasco, a group of Wilton High School students staged a dramatic reading of the play at nearby Fairfield Theatre Company – for a packed house. Among the reasons for the school cancellation, the principal, Timothy H. Canty , cited his concern that the production might be seen as biased against the war, and might ruffle feelings in the community, located about an hour from Manhattan . After an article appeared in the New York Times, the school district’s lawyer ruled that the production could go forward as long as it wasn’t a school-sponsored event. High-profile theaters took notice and stepped up to the plate. The play was performed in three New York venues: at the Vineyard Theatre, the Public theatre; and the Culture Project, where the production was followed by a panel featuring actor/filmmaker Stanley Tucci . Al l performances were sold out. As Miles Marek , the producing director for the Fairfield Theatre Company put it, “We’re sending troops all around the world to liberate Iraq and Afghanistan , and yet we’re having to defend our own freedom of speech back home. It doesn’t seem right as the lesson we’re teaching our children in schools.” Amen to that.
… It worked for “ Jericho .” Maybe the magic can happen for “Veronica Mars,” too. Last week, I mentioned the note from former San Diego actor Myra McWethy, who’s encouraging participation in a campaign to save the TV show that has provided work for so many San Diego actors over the past three years. Log on to sign an online petition to renew “Veronica.” Recently, fans’ responses to the announced cancellation of the new show, “ Jericho ,” were so strong that the program was reinstated for another season. So, support what Time Magazine calls “one of the six best dramas on TV.” Go to: http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?vm4fulls
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Sassy Sarah Vaughan, The Divine One – more a cabaret concert than a play, but a wonderful performance by Ayanna Hobson and a killer band
Ira Al dridge Repertory Players, at Caesar’s Café, downtown San Diego , through July 1
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? – intense , brutal, funny, acerbic, painful – and a masterpiece. A ¾ perfect production directed by Rick Seer
The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 24
100 Birds and The Last Class – a provocative double bill that’s part of 6th @ Penn’s Resilience of the Human Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007. One short, powerful play focuses on revenge (for childhood sexual abuse), the other on regret (for recklessness, paths taken/not taken). Potent work all around.
6th @ Penn Theatre , through June 18
Baby – a trifle of a musical, with the conception of conceiving; the excellent singing and acting elevate the effort considerably
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 24
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Celebrate the Summer Solstice… at the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.