By Pat Launer
Don Q is fictional; Oscar’s not there,
And the Globe is hosting A Catered Affair.
Oh, that Wacky Uncle Harvey
THE SHOW: A Catered Affair, a world premiere musical by 4-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein , with music by New York cabaret songwriter John Bucchino . The show is based on “The Catered Affair,” a teleplay by Sidney ‘Paddy’ Chayevsky (probably best know for the movie “Network,” though the Oscar-winning “Marty” was his initial calling card). In 1956, Gore Vidal adapted and expanded the piece into a film starring Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds as mother and daughter, with Ernest Borgnine as Dad.
THE STORY: Set in a Bronx brownstone/tenement in 1953, just as Janey’s parents are about to return from Washington , D.C. , where they were attending a memorial service for her brother, killed in the Korean War. Janey’s supposed to be looked after by her flamboyant uncle, but she’s home in bed with her fiancé, a nice young teacher awaiting tenure. She decides to get married, something she’s avoided up till now, because they have an opportunity for a honeymoon; her friend is having a shotgun wedding and needs her car driven out to California . Lousy reason to rush the marriage, but whatever. The ‘kids’ just want a simple ceremony at City Hall. But Janey’s mother has other plans; making a big, schmaltzy Irish wedding will assuage Mom’s guilt about ignoring her daughter all these years in favor of her adored son. And the Affair would give her daughter something Aggie never got: a big wedding, a loving marriage, a real chance, the right start. This will also allow Aggie to live vicariously through the event, fantasizing how her own life would have/could have been.
The money the family is promised from the government will cover the cost of the ballooning affair. But taciturn Dad has other plans. He has that money earmarked for a medallion, the coveted New York City medal of taxicab ownership. Through the plans, and counter-plans, conflicts and machinations involved in preparing for the affair, we learn that the play is less about a wedding than what makes a marriage, what exactly is family, what happens when the children are gone and the parents are left together, alone for the first time? What goes on inside people’s heads – and in the minds of busybody neighbors?
There’s a great deal of humanity and heart to the story, and judging from the comments after the show on opening night, even rather disparate people seemed to find something poignant that tapped into their owns emotions and experiences. Except for the overblown Uncle’s character ( Harvey giving himself a juicy role), these are real people leading real, everyday lives, not so distinct from our own, regardless of our era or socioeconomic status.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The creative team for this production is terrific. From Fierstein to director John Doyle, the toast of London and New York (justifiably acclaimed for his brilliantly minimalist revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company), to the stellar cast, which includes Tony winner Faith Prince (Guys and Dolls revival), Tony nominated Tom Wopat (Annie Get Your Gun revival) and of course, the gravel-voiced Harvey. Composer Bucchino is less famous, except for his heartfelt ballad, “Grateful,” also the name of his 2000 album that features his emotive story-songs sung by the likes of Judy Collins, Liza Minelli , Michael Feinstein, Art Garfunkel , Patti LuPone and Kristen Chenoweth.
The show is not perfect; the music is not memorable or singable . But it comes together in a sweet, simple way that cannot help but touch your heart; it’s fraught with sentiment, not sentimentality. These are authentic emotions, felt by flawed, flesh-and-blood characters. They speak and sing of the compromises one has to make in life and matrimony (“Marriage”), and the significance of perseverance and longevity (“I Stayed”). The songs are perfectly integrated into the dialogue; the speaking morphs right into the musical number, not parenthesized, but sung in character and in the same style as conversational speech. The lyrics, like the dialogue, are gritty and genuine. The musical arrangements (Constantine Kitsopoulos ) ideally suit the character and the singer, except for the three neighborhood yenta harpies, who seem to strain for the upper notes and chafe at Bocchino’s angular rhythms. The 9-piece orchestra is ideally calibrated to the vocal and emotional timbre of the performers and the piece.
Doyle’s direction is terrific — subtle, specific and unfussy. He really knows how to mine a moment and make it last. Those long pauses, after a peak of passion or emotion, are really powerful. The deceptive simplicity of the set (David Gallo) with its grainy, locale-defining projections, the period costumes (Ann Hould -Ward) and the delicate, evocative lighting (Brian MacDevitt ) speaks volumes, but softly.
The performances are outstanding. Prince is a marvel, playing a role she’s described as “Mama Rose as written by Chekhov.” Her ache and disappointment are palpable; she is a bundle of regret, trying desperately to make things right – for herself and her daughter. When she has a knock-down/drag-out with her husband, she is forced to see him, her children, her grief and her life in a different light. Though she’s given excellent dramatic support, this is Prince’s show, and she owns it with a quiet, seething grace. Wopat is wonderful in a dispassionate role that builds to a moving emotional climax (that defiant, mournful song of self- and marital affirmation, “I Stayed”). Leslie Kritzer is high-spirited and independent as Janey , who gets caught up, momentarily, in the whirlwind of a wedding (“One White Dress”), but really wants something other than her mother’s fantasy. As her fiancé, the underwritten Ralph, Matt Cavanaugh doesn’t get to do or sing enough (and he has the most unconvincing of the New York accents). Fierstein is very funny, and very over-the-top; though he provides comic relief, he seems to be performing in a different play. His overtly gay, showy Uncle Winston (more outspokenly ‘out’ than most in the 1950s) has to be drunk, disruptive and outraged (“Immediate Family”); though dramatically (and even vocally) Fierstein is up to the task, his character seems tacked on, and much more ‘ Harvey ’ than ‘Paddy.’ For good or ill, he gets the last word… spoken and sung.
With a little tweaking, this show can be all it’s meant to be, flaunting all the humanity it has. But whether New York audiences are ready for something so small and poignant and affecting is anybody’s guess.
THE LOCATION: Old Globe Theatre, extended through November 4
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: Oscar and the Pink Lady, a solo piece adapted from the novella by Belgian writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt who, the show program tells us, is one of the 15 most read writers in the world. The play was edited by British director Frank Dunlop, who directs his long-time friend and collaborator, Rosemary Harris, the Tony and Emmy award-winner and Oscar nominee. Angela Lansbury appeared in a benefit reading of the play a few months ago in L.A.
THE STORY: We never see Oscar, though the play is composed primarily of his words. He’s a 10 year-old in a hospital cancer ward, and he knows his leukemia treatments haven’t worked and he’s dying. The woman he calls “Granny Pink” is an elderly ‘pink lady,’ one of those aging volunteers in a Pepto Bismol -colored smock, who visits him daily and develops a close and mutually life-changing relationship. From the getgo , Oscar’s already gone. Straightening up the room, Granny Pink comes upon a box of letters, the missives she’d encouraged Oscar to write to God, someone he didn’t even believe in, to express his frustration with everyone around him – from his doctor to his parents – for avoiding the truth of his dire situation. Granny Pink confronts Oscar’s fears and concerns head-on, but she also distracts him with wild tales of her (fantasy) career as a wrestler, The Incredible Midget, who tackled fierce women and won nearly every bout. Now, as Granny Pink reads the letters, she enacts all the situations, assumes all the characters and comments on what she recalls and what she learned. She helped Oscar cope with his life and deal with his death; he encouraged her imagination, connected her with a wise little person, and taught her a thing or two about life and death as well.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It’s a pleasure to have a ‘legend’ like Rosemary Harris in our midst. Too bad the vehicle isn’t a more potent or worthy one. The play mostly avoids the maudlin, dying-child mode, but it’s chock-full of bromides and platitudes.
Epistolary plays are hard to pull off; this one succeeds only in fits and starts. It would appear to be a star vehicle, but as directed and played, it really isn’t. Harris is pleasant company, and the story is generally engaging. But it’s no heart-stopper, either in content or performance. Not all the characters are well differentiated. Not all the story elements are fascinating. Oscar’s nicknames for some of his fellow patients, based on their illness and appearance, are most amusing: bald-headed, post-therapy Oscar is ‘Egghead’; ‘China Girl’ wears a black, shiny wig to cover her baldness; ‘’Popcorn is a 200-pound 9 year-old, and ‘Bacon’ has sustained total-body burns. The silent, transparent- skinned ‘Peggy Blue’ has a blood disorder Oscar calls “blue disease.” He stands vigil at her bed, because he wants to “protect her from ghosts.”
The most interesting part of the play is the ‘game’ Granny Pink invents. It’s nearing the end of the year, and as a kid-sung “Twelve Days of Christmas” wafts repeatedly through the drama, she suggests that, during the next 12 days leading up to New Year’s, Oscar will go back to the very beginning, start his life again, and age ten years per day. He chronicles his development in his at-first reluctant letters to God. “This morning I was born, I turned 5 at noon and tonight, I’m 10 – the age of reason.” And the next day: “Today I reached my teenage years. Tonight I’m 20; the worst is behind me”). He learns, she learns, we all learn: “You endure physical suffering; you choose emotional suffering.” “There’s no solution to life except to live it.” “Look at the world every day for the first time.” “Life isn’t a gift; it’s a loan.”
The set (Michael Vaughn Sims) is a lovely suggestion of a hospital ward, with a few beds and colorful forced-cheerful animal decals along the low walls of the arena theater. The lighting (Trevor Norton) marks the passage of time, the playing space, even the characters. There’s the promise of something deep and rich in the play, but it just doesn’t deliver.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 28
Tilting at Windmills
THE SHOW: Man of La Mancha , the perennial 1965 musical by Mitch Leigh (music), Joe Darion (lyrics) and Dale Wasserman (book), based on Wasserman’s television play, “I, Don Quixote.”
THE STORY: It’s a play within a play, concerning the novelist and his most famous work. During the Spanish Inquisition (early 17th century), Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra is imprisoned for what amounts to untoward honesty. His fellow prisoners insist on putting him on trial, as they do all new residents. He defends himself by enlisting his fellow inmates to help him tell the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha , the dauntless, demented knight errant who prefers to see beauty in the world and is destroyed for his delusions. The Knight of the Woeful Countenance sallies forth, battling windmills with his trusty servant, Sancho , by his side. When he sees the kitchen wench, Al donza , he begins to worship her as the pure, virginal Dulcinea . Though she scorns him for his insanity, Al donza is eventually won over; as the Don lies dying, she has come to believe in his “Impossible Dream” – maintaining love, honor, civility and chivalry, even in the face of insurmountable odds.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Lyric Opera San Diego opens its 28th season with the company premiere of this American classic. It’s a straightforward production, nicely designed (Jack Montgomery), including that ominous, retracting staircase that descends every time the Inquisitors come to take someone away (and that includes, at the end, Cervantes). It starts off strong, with the 15-piece onstage orchestra doing a bangup job (especially in the brass section) on the imposing Overture. It’s exciting just to watch the graceful hands of conductor Chris Thompson, more familiar to LOSD audiences as a singer. His delicate or angular wrist action is riveting, and the orchestra generally responds quite well. It does not prove to be a distraction to have him standing upstage, as the nearly two dozen performers come and go. There is no massaging of the songs; as iconic and overdone as “The Impossible Dream” may be, it, like all the other numbers, is sung in basic, unadorned, highly traditional fashion. The musical was innovative for its time, but we’ve come a long way in the past 40+ years. There are no new insights here, no contemporary interpretations. That lends a bit of a museum quality to the piece, which some call soppy and sentimental, but I personally never leave the theater dry-eyed. Maybe I’m being emotionally manipulated, but I willingly fall for it every time. Al as, where are the windmill tilters of today?
Overall, the performances are good. General director Leon Natker acquits himself quite well in the central role. He is in fine voice, and makes the character believable if not heart-breaking. Broadway veteran Jimmy Ferraro is only intermittently up to the task of playing Sancho , a role he’s assayed multiple times. At least on the night I was there, he seemed to be pushing, and reaching for hi high notes without consistent success. But he certainly looks the role. Al so making her debut with the company is Audrey Babcock as Al donza , a role she recently played at Utah Festival Opera. Her acting is credible and her rich mezzo soprano is outstanding; she may have done the best job on the difficult, rangy ballad of “ Al donza ” I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of hearing, the sound was a problem; this company doesn’t mic its performers, but not all potent singers are also expert at speaking dialogue or displaying dramatic acumen. In minor roles, one musical standout is Brian Imoto displaying his crystalline tenor as The Barber and The Moor. Director J. Sherwood Montgomery, together with assistant director/choreographer David Brannen , keep the pace up but the moves simple. “The Abduction” scene seems toned down; Al donza is roughed up by the muleteers but she’s not gang-raped, as is usually the case. That directorial choice weakens the effect of the horrors heaped on her for consorting with Quixote, who professes and extols her virginity. The Spanish pronunciations are spotty and inconsistent. But the production looks good and sounds good overall. This is a show that every musical theater lover should see. Hence, this revival, intended to introduce another generation to the musical classics, so the past is preserved for the future.
THE LOCATION: Lyric Opera San Diego , through October 7
Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley
THE SHOW: The 9th annual Trolley Dances, presented by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater and the Metropolitan Transit System, opened last weekend, with five choreographers and companies dancing and prancing around the East Village . The locations, as always, are fascinating, indoors and out. It’s fun to see a part of the city you haven’t visited before. But this isn’t the most exciting Trolley Dances presentation I’ve seen, though I remain a big fan of the event. There seems to be less bona fide dance this year, more acrobatics and bouncing off walls. Several dancers appear with more than one company; is that evidence of collegiality or a lack of sufficient local dancers? Al most across the board, I found the costumes unflattering this year, with a pervasive emphasis on baggy street clothes and striped socks. And sneakers, though necessary on these mean streets, don’t do much to enhance the beauty and grace of a dancer. I missed the whimsy and unforgettable inventiveness of prior years.
The most memorable piece is Yolande Snaith’s “Ten Green Bottles Standing on the Bar,” a conflation of two former creations by the UCSD faculty member which don’t always meld seamlessly. But inside the quirky Wheelworks on J St. , Snaith’s ten dancers cavort and slide in, on, under and around a very long — what? game table? – that stands in for the titular bar. What they do with those bottles is mind-boggling; you have to watch fast as the chaotic activity flies by in these ‘dangerous games.’ This piece is so frenetic, and so crammed full of intriguing moves and images, you want to see it a second time, even if the jangly , jarring original music (Graeme Miller) begins to grate.
The most impressive dancer, by far, is the New York-based soloist Kyle Abraham, who prepared three pieces for the event and “changed them up” for each group. When I was there, he apologized for a recent injury, which required him to wear socks rather than performing barefoot. It didn’t matter. His focus, his physical control, his groundedness , his unswerving integration of mind and body, are riveting, and unique among this year’s Trolley Dancers.
Some of the chosen locales are narrow corridors or darkened areas that make parts of the performance difficult to view. That’s true of UCSD alum Randé Dorr’s “To Start Again,” a duet featuring Robert “Robby J” Johnson and Jordan Szabal that describes, in three distinct parts, the past and present of a relationship. Two of the sections are defined (oddly) by the childlike lullaby “ Hushabye Mountain ” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang . The dancers had technique, and Szabal is lovely and statuesque, but they seemed disengaged, from the dance and from each other.
Jean Isaacs ’ opening gambit, “Imagine a Mexican Restaurant,” is a two- parter ; the second segment, danced to the traditional Mexican song, “La Cucaracha,” is stronger. The dances are muscular, as the performers fling themselves against walls and bounce off a concrete bench. But though it’s impressively athletic, it isn’t emotionally engaging. Her later number, “The Attack of the Swiss Gardeners,” features geeky looks robotic moves and very little dance; it just seemed silly to me, though it was nice of the troupe to plant some flowers in front of the historic Sheldon House. Too bad they had to dig them up for the next tour group.
The final piece, “Concourse Dance,” choreographed by skilled Jean Isaacs dancer John Diaz (I miss his platinum hair!) ,showcased ten dancers doing independent moves in and around Richard Serra’s series of massive block sculptures in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art , across from the Santa Fe Depot. The skill of the dancers seems highly variable, and no matter where you situate yourself, you can’t see most of the dancers. Some seem like novices, but Martha Aguiniga stands out as a striking presence with assured and imposing moves. This proved to be an underwhelming end to the event; it isn’t stirring or amusing, and watching just a small visual slice of it is downright frustrating.
Trolley Dances is unique in the country (though it’s now been adopted in San Francisco ). If you like dance, if you’ve never ridden the trolley, if San Diego history or exploring local locales is your thing, you’ll find something to enjoy in Trolley Dances. Next stop… 2008.
THE LOCATION: The event begins at the new Smart Corner complex at the City College trolley stop, Park Blvd. & Broadway. 2-hour tours begin every 45 minutes from 11am to 2:45pm. 10/6-7.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
HOT LATIN NEWS: (no, it’s not about my dancing partner, sizzling Colombian Daniel Vasco…) The documentary that I made with Rick Bollinger of City TV, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” has been accepted into the 11thInternational Latino Film Festival in the SF Bay Area. And we didn’t even apply! Someone from their Festival saw our 20-minute doc at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and requested it for their fest. So, I’ll be heading up to the Bay Area in early November. Our film is part of a tribute to Luis, and hopefully, a good part of the talented Valdez family will be there. “Cisco Kid,” the 1994 film Luis directed (starring Cheech Marin and Jimmy Smits ) will be screened as well. And after our film, viewers are invited to adjourn to Chacho’s , a Zoot Suit-themed Mexican Restaurant in San Jose . Thursday, Nov. 8. The Festival runs Nov. 2-18, if you happen to be in SF or environs at that time. www.latinofilmfestival.org
… Now This IS about my sizzling dance partner… At last! The video of our performance for “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance” is viewable on my website. It’s short and fun. Check it out at www.patteproductions.com
… Me and KUSI… … If you missed us on Wed. Sept. 26, you can watch the segment online; there’s a link on my website: www.patteproductions.com . My next appearance on “Inside San Diego ” is Wed. Oct. 17. Be there!
…New media platform: My suggestions for Hot Tix of the Week are appearing on KNSD’s What’s Hot webpage every week: http://www.nbcsandiego.com/whatshot/index.html . Or, you can just go to their website, www.nbcsandiego.com , and click on What’s Hot on the homepage.
… Keeping the Dream Al ive… Common Ground Theatre continues its production of Awaiting Judgment , the last show helmed by their beloved artistic director, Dr. Floyd Gaffney. The piece premiered last weekend, and moves to St. Paul ’s Cathedral October 5-6 (619-298-7261 Ext 356). The play, by Art Cribbs , brings together, in a prison cell, two 20th century theologians: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer . Common Ground dedicates this production, which stars Rhys Green , Anthony Drummond and Craig Huisenga , to the memory of Dr. Gaffney.
… Last gasp of the Bard on the Big Screen… The final offering of the series “The Film’s the Thing: Shakespeare on Screen,” co-presented by the Old Globe Theatre and San Diego Shakespeare Society, guest curated by film critic Beth Accomando , is Tom Stoppard’s “ Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” the fantastical Hamlet backstory, showing on at 7pm on October 11. Free to MoPA members/$6 for the general public. At the Museum of Photographic Arts , www.mopa.org ; 619-238-7559 x202.
… SonnetMania … The 6th annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations is on the boards. Hosted by Jenni Prisk , with entertainment from the Vox Nobili singing group, the event features sonnets read by Steve Gouveia of Jersey Boys, the Globe’s Darko Tresnjak , local acting favorite Jonathan McMurtry ; choreographer John Malashock, KPBS’ Gloria Penner, and others. October 15, 7:30pm, in the Old Globe Theatre.
… New Play, new regime… The Playwrights Project is presenting a newly commissioned work, Lifted , by San Diego-bred/Los Angeles-based Annie Weisman Macomber (Be Aggressive, Hold Please), who got her playwriting start at Playwrights Project years ago. At the event, the Project’s new artistic director will be introduced: educator, playwright and performer Maria Glanz , who served as producing artistic director at Seattle ’s Rainier Valley Youth Theatre. Playwrights Project founder/artistic director Deborah Salzer will assume a new role – Artistic Mentor – which is what she’s been to so many budding artists for so many years. Her equally talented husband, SDSU professor Beeb Salzer, designed the set for Lifted, a funny/serious morality play for teens, about theft, honesty and responsibility. The play, directed by D. Candis Paule , features Monique Gaffney, Rachael vanWormer and Fred Harlow, among others. At the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla , October 23. 619-239-8222; www.playwrightsproject.org
…Binary Choice… Butterworth Dance Company presents NOVA, the premiere of its BINARY Youth Dance Company, with choreography by BINARY director Rayna Stohl and guest choreographer Yvonne Hernandez, who’s shown considerable dance prowess performing with Eveoke Dance Theater. The evening will also feature performances by Butterworth Dance, choreographed by artistic director Traves Butterworth. Preceding the Oct. 13 performance, there will be a silent auction. At the California Center for the Arts, Escondido ; October 12-13; 1-800-988-4253.
… It’s October, and the Zombies are out and about… at Zombie Prom, a new “girl-loves-ghoul” ‘50s musical in the (jugular) vein of Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors and Grease. Find out if the teenage nuclear zombie (a jilted lover who threw himself into the local nuclear reactor) will get to take his girl to the prom. October 19-28 in the Don Powell Theatre on the campus of SDU. Special Halloween fundraiser performance on Oct. 31. 619-594-6884; theatre.sdsu.edu.
…Whatever happened to Arts in Education ?… Find out at two big convocations.
On Friday, October 5, the Old Globe hosts the San Diego Educational Theatre Association’s Theater Teacher Conference, an all-day event (8:00-3:00) with workshops for theater teachers in Technical Theater, Arts Careers, Acting and more. 619-231-1941, ext. 2144 or 2355.
Coming up on Saturday, November 17, the San Diego County Arts Education Summit 2007, geared to educators, artists, administrators, parents and anyone else interested in ensuring that all schoolchildren get the most comprehensive arts education possible. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has been invited. Sponsored by Center ARTES at California State University San Marcos, the San Diego County Office of Education and Americans for the Arts, the event takes place at CSU San Marcos; www.csusm.edu/centerartes
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
A Catered Affair – poignant, touching story, beautifully acted, well sung, with the music excellently integrated into the script
The Old Globe, through November 4
Thoroughly Modern Millie — thoroughly delightful production, with great singing and dancing
Welk Resort Theatre, through November 4
Ain’t Misbehavin ’ – hot – and cool — Fats Waller songs, well sung and excellently played
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 14
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Yikes! October already! Make the most of Fall … at the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .