By Pat Launer
You’re always judged by the “Company” you keep,
By how fast you laugh, how hard you weep,
How you dance, how you sing, how you get your “Kicks,”
How you’d vote now (or in “1776”).
How you lose your head, how you keep your wits,
How you function in an ultra high-drama Blitz.
The time you waste, the time you spend,
And of course, the theater you attend!
Pardon me, Sondheimites (wasn’t that just condoned by the Supreme Court??) but this isn’t my musical fave. The master’s early venture, “Company,” was the composer/lyricist’s first collaboration with acclaimed director Harold Prince (1970). And it was, perhaps, the first ‘concept musical.’ It all centers around Bobby (endlessly, repeatedly referred to as Bobby-Bubi and Bobby-Baby), turning 35 and still unmarried, though all his friends are. Some have divorced, others are in the process of splitting, still others grin and bear it. The guys envy him, the women covet him, but every one of them wants him to get married, which, he decides by evening’s end, may not be such a bad fate.
Actually, during the show’s early tryouts, the original finale indicated that getting married meant living “happily ever after in hell” — which wasn’t exactly what audiences (especially the married ones) wanted to hear. So Sondheim and librettist George Furth did a 180 and wrote a new song that said, despite all the troubles and tribulations, getting married meant “Being Alive.” That song ultimately became an anthem of AIDS sufferers and survivors. And the change proved to be a good move; the show went on to receive 13 Tony noms and it won 6, including Best Musical. The show still maintains that marriage is something about which folks are “sorry-grateful,” and all couples can apparently swallow that. Though the story is decidedly ’70s, the issues are timeless: how “those good and crazy people,” your married friends, harass, emasculate, humiliate and seduce each other on a regular basis.
Now along comes Starlight Musical Theatre, in its second year of breaking out of its warhorse mode and trying one somewhat ‘risky’ show per summer. And here’s Bobby, adorably played by Kevin Spirtas, long-time veteran of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” serving as the fulcrum of five separate stories. What makes this piece sing is individualized characters. Each of the couples has to resonate distinctively, has to represent a different type of relationship. In the Starlight production, though all the roles are excellently sung, you really can’t tell one from the next. The only character who stands out from the others is the aging, boozy, jaded Joanne, who gets to sing the show’s other famous song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Fresh from last year’s triumph as Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret” at North Coast Rep, Linda Libby knocks the number out of the park. She’s terrific throughout.
The rest of the cast is appealing, talented (Marta, one of Bobby’s paramours, is played by the amazing Misty Cotton, who was killer as one of the Siamese twins in “Side Show” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank last year; here, she’s a totally unbelievable as a wild-ass, free-wheeling hippie type youngun. The only thing I bought was her long fringed vest. Actually, I would’ve bought it right off her back). Even the often-amazing Bets Malone wasn’t very amusing in the should-be-hilarious lightning-fast “Getting Married Today.”
Bobby’s other two wannabe wives, played by Jennifer Shelton (gorgeous voice) and Jessica Wheeler (cute but underwhelming as the ditsy flight attendant) did nothing as a trio to make the potentially funny “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” funny in the slightest. Marta’s cynical New York lament, “Another Hundred People,” also fell flat, as did the staging/choreography, which was surprisingly static. With the combined talents of Brian Wells and David Brannen, there could have/should have been some stellar, inventive moves. Where was the energy, the juice, the joy?? Everyone and everything seemed tired. And the mic problems didn’t help. Incredibly, all these problems were so disconcerting, I barely noticed the planes.
The set (by Victoria Petrovich), a multi-level metal construction that smacked of city-scapes and fire escapes, looked great, but required a great deal of upping and downing that probably tired the actors as much as the audience. Behind it, the lighting (Eric Lotze) was often so garish (an attempt at ’70s psychedelia??) that it became distracting and annoying. The costumes (Kathy Auckland) were mostly period, but there were some inconsistencies. And if it is period, why the mention of Prozac?? The piece doesn’t have to seem dated, but this production did — or uncertain exactly where it belonged. That dope-smoking scene was the least authentic I’ve ever seen. Have any of these people ever inhaled??
I applaud Starlight for taking the chance on a musical like this… dark and difficult. I hope they continue the trend. But I also hope they nail the next one. This wasn’t any Company I’d want to be keeping — unless they just stood outside my door and sang.
DO YOU KNOW BUTOH?
Many people think it’s an ancient Japanese dance form, but the avant-garde Butoh really only began in the 1960s. It was born as a provocative confrontation of the cultural establishment, a radical answer to Western concepts of dance. The often-naked body is smeared all-over with ashy white makeup; the red-rimmed eyes cross, roll and nearly pop out of the head; the feet and body writhe and twist in extreme slow motion (my husband doesn’t have the patience for it; he said it’s like watching milk curdle). The dance is derived from the observation of nature, an attempt to be as honest with the body and its experience as possible. The aim is to explore the roots of suffering by tearing away superficial harmony. Overall, it’s more about metamorphosis than metaphor, and it often seems more like ritual than dance. And that’s how Charlene Penner sees it, as “Ritual Dance intended to awaken the consciousness through the body.” The question is whether the dance succeeds in doing so for the audience or only for the performers, who are clearly on another plane of awareness as they move ever-so-slowly through the space and intertwine with each other.
Penner is glorious to watch, her moves not always beautiful but often astonishing. Her focus, concentration and control are mesmerizing. In two of the three pieces, “In Reverence” and “Of One Thread,” she is joined by Debra Bandera, who according to her bio, uses her training in Butoh and West African dance for business consulting, “invisioning” and strategic planning. Cynthia Delores Jemmott, a native of Panama, was classically trained, and in the opening piece, she was striking to look at, but seemed somewhat less at home in the butoh mode.
The first segment, very powerful, spoke to mutual dependence, as each leans on the others and also pulls away, looking to the sky. The three seemed to be touching or tracing each other’s auras. But then they move apart and revert to a baser nature, slinking and slouching across the stage like animals — big cats, simian shapes. They curl up together, they flirt and tease. They strike a pose like the Pietà. And then the two go off, leaving Penner alone, with a huge boulder balanced on her back. Watching her painstakingly straighten up and move on shows how consciousness, serenity, persistence and fortitude can help one bear any burden, and even turn it to joy, as the rock becomes a source of sexuality, then distended pregnancy and ultimately, birth. She grows wild in her new-found ecstasy, twisting and spinning out of control. She contorts herself into inconceivable positions. She reaches through her own distortion to find a feather hat and don it like an elegant lady, stretching her limits, spreading her arms as if to fly. And then, in the final moments, to the mournful flute of Carlos Nakai and the angelic chorus of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, she is joined by Bandera, who gently touches her face (wiping a tear?). They are part “Of One Thread,” do not take their eyes off one another. They separate and come together, ending back to back, two faces of one self, perhaps.
In this one-weekend performance at 6th @ Penn, not all the intention was transparent; many aspects were intensely personal, and opaque to the viewer. But quiet contemplation and meticulous attention were rewarded. At the end, the audience was showered with the evening’s title focus, “Petals of Rose.”
THE MYSTERY OF THE HISTORY
It doesn’t seem like there were that many changes to the Lamb’s Players production of “1776,” but while last year’s mounting didn’t do anything for me, this one, reconceived at the Lyceum Theatre, touched me, moved me and made me feel (uncharacteristically) patriotic. About half the cast has been replaced or reassigned, and that may make some difference. The singing was always excellent, but the characters are much more clearly defined now, the humor more sharp and focused. Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s staging has been perfectly adapted to the new space, with the actors coming down among the audience, so we feel very much a part of that stifling, “fetid” Philadelphia room where the Declaration of Independence was hammered out over a period of mere weeks. It makes the story breathtaking all over again — the internecine battles, the petty squabbles, the South vs. the North. We get a much better sense of the dogged and disliked Adams (Robert Smyth, always a wonderful actor, but in much better voice than before), the lecherous Franklin (Tom Stephenson, even more engaging and jovial), the sensual side of Jefferson (the very appealing David S. Humphrey). And standing in for Gilmour Smyth, Sandy Campbell took off from her charmingly airheaded next-door lesbian kosher caterer in “Falsettos” to spend a weekend as the thoughtful, adoring Abigail, much-respected wife of John Adams. Her robust soprano is luscious in both roles. There are many other highlights of this production, which should be seen even if you caught the last one. There’s something intangible, a certain spirit of ’76, you might say, that infuses this seemingly new-minted musical with energy and heart.
[For more on this, listen to my review this Friday at 6:30 or 8:30 a.m. on KPBS… or check it out after that on my website, @patteproductions.com]
SAN DIEGO PERFORMING ARTS KICK BUTT!!
It really was a kick! I was thrilled to have been asked by top-notch event producer Job York to co-host last week’s Arts Tix Kicks event with the Performing Arts League’s exec direc, Alan Ziter. Great turnout (if you don’t count the few homeless, leering boozers) gathered in front of Horton Plaza and the Arts Tix booth. Tons of great performances and gobs of free tickets given away. The whole idea was to highlight the best of the performing arts, with sneak peeks at some of the summer’s hottest shows. Cute clothes and a cute number (the title tune) from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (coming to the La Jolla Stage Company) began the lunchtime event, which included Melissa Supera-Fernandes’ knockout song from “Falsettos,” “I’m Breaking Down.” Melissa had her little breakdown right there in front of everyone, and it brought the house down. Victor Chan amassed a mass of converts when he did his Judas routine from “Jesus Christ Superstar” (Christian Community Theatre). The “Beehive” gals, dressed in eye-popping chartreuse shimmy-dresses, did the Tina Turner thang “nice and rough.” Culture Shock spotlighted some shocking moves in their hip-hop presentation. And then Jeremiah Lorenz leapt onto the stage in all his bewigged glory, with three killer numbers from the Cygnet Theatre premiere, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” performed with local rocker Jenn Grinel as Yitzhak and a kickass backup band. Oh, and did I mention the “California Dreamin'” of the CYT Kids and the stilt-walking Lion-King-like animals from the San Diego Guild of Puppetry? At the stroke of noon, there was a Kick-line, a lineup of performers and audience, led by Delana Bennett from Magic 92.5’s morning show. “A Chorus Line’s” “One” never looked so… lame?? But it was all in great fun, and a terrific time was had by all (especially all those who walked away with free tix). Sign me up for next year!
Speaking of lineups…. Don’t forget the Fritz Blitz, which opens Thursday, July 3 at the Lyceum… with four weeks of plays by California writers. I’m especially looking out for “Peaches en Regalia” (I like the title; plus, it’s directed by newlywed Robert May). And “A Certain Unsoundness of Mind” (by San Diegan Michael Thomas Tower) will be directed by the Globe’s Brendon Fox. And “Turnip” (directed by Craig Huisenga, who understudied George to my Martha in the Rep’s “…Virginia Woolf” — neither of us got to go on! Damn!) written by multi-talented local actor Rachael Van Wormer, who recently knocked everyone’s sox off in “Eleemosynary” at La Jolla Stage Company (Craig Noel told me she was the most exciting ingénue he’d seen in years). The cast includes Jennifer Lee Kraus, recently so irresistible in “Stop Kiss.” Van Wormer’s friend and contemporary, Jason Connors, premieres his “Mud on a Little Girl’s Dress” (directed by that other half of the newlyweds… Candis Paule). Fritz artistic director Duane Daniels tackles the most provocative of titles (by two Bay Area playwrights), the very gay “Porn Yesterday.” More on these as I see ’em. You try to see ’em, too!
SAVE THE ARTS….
Don’t forget to use your name and your clout to keep the Arts alive in California. Funding for the California Arts Council continues to hang by a slender thread. Budget bill AB 1769 recommends elimination of the California Arts Council altogether! It has been defeated on the Senate Floor twice, but only by a narrow margin. Another vote will likely be taken very soon.
Sign the e-petition to “Keep Arts Alive in California” by going to the following link:
People have said it’s hard to get on the site. Stay with it; you may need to try more than once.
There’s a rumor afoot that ” the Arts” is now designated as an UNAVOIDABLE CONCESSION to a balanced state budget. Even if you have already written a dozen letters, please sign the e-petition and forward it to your friends. It’s sponsored by the California Alliance for Arts Education, whose mission is to “promote, support and advocate visual and performing arts education for preschool through post-secondary students in California schools.” This is the primary statewide organization that brings together all constituencies for arts education: students, artists, arts organizations, K-12 teachers, professional teacher associations, state and local education departments, professional development providers, parents and PTAs, and interested community members. Sign on to save the arts.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST (with one new addition, and some continuing players…)
“1776,” a Lamb’s Players Theatre reprise at the Lyceum — better than before; patriotic and irresistible (irresistibly patriotic??)
“Fraulein Else” at La Jolla Playhouse – stellar performance by Francesca Faridany
“Pentecost” at the Old Globe – thought-provoking thriller about politics and art
[sic] at Sledgehammer – nasty, delicious, po-mo urban angst
“Rounding Third” – Little League story, Big League laughs
Summer has officially started… with tragedy, comedy, music, monologue .. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and Put a little drama in your life…..
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.