By Pat Launer
When you make your theater choices,
Think about these women’s voices:
The icons of jazz in ‘Raisin’ the Rent’
And ‘Boccanegra’s’ soprano mellifluent.
Take a seat at a small, candlelit table, order a drink, have a little dinner. Then settle back for All That Jazz. Pretty soon, you’ll be clappin’, tappin’, stompin’ your feet and shaking your head in wonder and joy. You’re in Ernestine Anderson’s Night Club now. It’s 1953, and the landlord is hounding poor Ernestine, a Big Band era vocalist who’s still recording today. So, she does what many club-owners did in the early days of jazz. They held Rent Parties, or Skiffles, which featured informal music-making for particular fund-generating purposes. “Raisin’ the Rent” is just that kind of party. And you’re invited. Ernestine has also gathered a few of her friends to have some fun, raise some funds and jam; her buddies, you’ll be interested to know, are Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. Six local song stylists, each with a style of her own, bend their beautiful, versatile voices around the signature songs of these blues/jazz icons. Each tells a little story of her hardscrabble life, and then goes on to knock your sox off with some marvelous, magical music. The solos are better than the group numbers, which seem a lot less ‘directed’ and ‘staged’; though there isn’t much staging overall; each woman is introduced, comes up on the tiny stage in the attractive Caesar’s Café in downtown, and sings her heart out. Michael Sanders, the musical director, has helped these divas give a sense of their namesakes, not an imitation. And that works wonderfully.
The piece was created by Calvin Manson, founder/artistic director of Ira Aldridge Players, the county’s only black dinner theater. His projects generally feature singing performances more than narrative structure or directorial finesse, but there’s always an impressive array of talent, frequently culled from local church choirs. This is the finale of the company’s three-year African American Women in Music series. Last year’s presentation was “An Evenin’ with Billie,” starring the amazing Anasa Johnson, who gets to reprise that role and sing some of Billie’s best: “Good Mornin’ Heartache,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “God Bless the Child.” Two of the other galvanic performers are the livewire Arnessa Rickett as Etta James and the dynamo Ayanna Hobson, a scat-phenom with a 4 ½ octave range, as Ella Fitzgerald. The cast is rounded out by Michelle Allen as a statuesque and classy Lena Horne and Yvette Moneé as a soft-spoken and subdued Nancy Wilson. The band is terrific: Michael Sanders on keyboard, Calvin L. Boyd on electric bass, Kevin Henderson on drums, Earl Vaults on tenor sax and the featured performer, a knockout, Mmanzo Hill on alto sax. They seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the women and they made the time fly and the rafters ring.
There were a couple of minor problems, like the temperamental mikes, and the fact that some used hand-mikes and some wore lavaliers (one singer, I think, had both). The feedback and on again/off again amplification was annoying at times. But these pros never skipped a beat. Then there was the issue of the bowl of bucks. Was that just a prop, or were real-live patrons actually supposed to put money in to help ‘raise rent’? The performers certainly asked enough times, but it didn’t seem clear to the patrons whether that was real or theatrical/historical begging. There was the odd anachronism, too, like talking about Etta’s increasing age and decreasing vocal power (in 1953, when she’s still at it, almost as powerful as ever, today). Some of the life-stories didn’t quite go anywhere (like ‘Billie’s’ comment that “no one’s meaner than white folks,” after which she proceeds to tell of tale of being taken by a ‘colored’ guy). A few times, the engaging, smiling stage presence belied the aching lyrics. But mostly, the tenor and tone were superb. When all the gals get together for “I Got the Right to Sing the Blues,” you believe them. And when they end with the amusing “Someone Else is Steppin’ In, While You are Steppin’ Out,” you feel you’ve experienced a full range of emotion, talent and vocal style. ‘Raisin’ the Rent’ is raisin’ the musical bar.
At Caesar Café, downtown San Diego , through May 22.
The story may be complex and convoluted, but the music is stirring and emotive. Nonetheless, Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” isn’t the most popular or most performed of the great composer’s works. It took two tries to get it right. The 1857 premiere was less than a success, though with many changes to the libretto, the 1881 revision fared better. Even so, the San Diego Opera felt compelled to add projected summaries before each act, in addition to the Synopsis in the program – just to help audiences keep on top of who’s doing what to whom, and where. The text is rife with disguises and new identities, class warfare and political machinations. But the basic story, of the 14th century Doge of Genoa and his long-lost illegitimate daughter, Amelia, is touching, and at the end, tragic. Conflicts of the heart arise when Amelia learns that the sworn enemy of her beloved is her father. The relations, of course, are revealed too late. But on the way to the finale, there are some marvelous musical moments, notably the Act I duet between Amelia and Simon and later in the act, the sextet, with all the principals and chorus (huge number of supernumeraries in this production) expressing opinions about the complicated political situation.
The low notes are king here, with two powerful baritones — the commanding Metropolitan Opera star, Lado Antoneli, in the title role and James Westman as the traitorous Paolo — as well as bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel as co-conspirator Pietro and the compelling bass, Arutjun Kotchinian, as the (not-so-old-looking) grandfather of Amelia, Fiesco (aka “Andrea’). The tenor, Carlo Ventre, as Amelia’s love, Gabriele, is competent but not memorable. It’s the really high notes that remain in mind and memory, as sung by the magnificent Anja Harteros; her voice is brilliant throughout her range — heartfelt and hearty at the bottom and crystalline at the top. And her consistently convincing acting carries her through the vicissitudes of joy, love, sorrow, horror, loss and despair. She was dazzling last year in “La Traviata;” can’t wait for her return to San Diego .
Conductor Edoardo Müller brought energy and nuance to the symphony orchestra. Lotfi Monsouri’s direction was capable, but tended to favor front-facing lineups of the principal singers; the multitudinous supers were an engaging and colorful addition. The costumes, borrowed from the Santa Fe Opera, were vivid and attractive. The set, newly constructed by the SDO (John Coyne), was majestic and versatile, beautifully lit by Thomas Munn. In all, it was a lovely production, most memorable for the reappearance of Harteros.
… SDSU Opera Theater, presenting two one-acts, “The Impresario” by Mozart and Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” April 28-May 1 in Smith Recital Hall.
… The 22nd annual Design Performance Jury at SDSU, Friday, April 15, from 9:00-2:30 in the Experimental Theatre.
… The Baldwin New Play Festival 2005, at UCSD, April 11-23 (various locations).
…The Carlsbad Playreaders staged reading of “The Clearing,” by Helen Edmundson, directed by Marc Overton, featuring Overton, Jeffrey Jones, and Equity actors Natalie Sentz and John Carroll Tessmer, among others. Set in 1650s Ireland, a time of ethnic cleansing under the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell, the play mixes the personal and the political. Monday, April 18, in the Carlsbad Library. And coming to Carlsbad in May, Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,”, directed by Walt Jones, starring Old Globe Associate Artists Jim Winker and Kandis Chappell (she was pitch-perfect in the role at the Globe in 1996). Auditions for the rest of the cast are on April 25 ( www.carlsbadplayreaders.org ).
… Moira Keefe, that mistress of maternal, middle-age madness, is performing “Life Before the Crisis… Something is Lurking,” at the Carlsbad Village Theatre on April 15. This wacky one-hour monologue concerns “marriage, motherhood, mammograms and margaritas.” Proceeds will benefit Moxie Theatre.
…And speaking of Moxie, the first fundraiser for the new theater company, helmed by that Fearsome Foursome, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg , Jo Anne Glover, Liv Kellgren and Jennifer Kraus, will be held Saturday afternoon, May 7th, and will feature the first season announcement, sneak-preview performances and a silent auction. At the Martini Ranch in Encinitas.
… Don’t want to step on anyone’s (dance) toes, but Sushi: Take Out @ St. Cecilia’s concludes this weekend with “Four on the Floor,” which features Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater, Santa Barbara Dance Theater and LEVYdance. San Diegan Lauren Slater will be dancing with LEVYdance (which is based in San Francisco), so expect to see her mother, County Supervisor Pam Slater, at every performance.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ON RIGHT NOW – and ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, heartbreakin’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Doubt” – fascinating, important, thought-provoking play. Bonus: Can be seen on this coast while it’s opening on Broadway! Time called it “The #1 show of the year.” Sure to be a Tony contender… and it just won the Pulitzer Prize. Catch it if you can!
At the Pasadena Playhouse, through April 10.
“Antony and Cleopatra” – a colossal Antony and a seductive Cleo make for a wild ride, a highly sensual (if sometimes uneven) production by those antic, “No holds Bard” players.
Poor Players at the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Ct. Rd.; through April 10.
“The Waverly Gallery” – heart-breaking family dramedy, beautifully acted and directed.
New Village Arts (@ Jazzercize in Carlsbad), through April 30.
“Himself and Nora” – A Joyce-ful love story. A world premiere about James Joyce that may be light fare for literati but it’s well done, intelligent and entertaining.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through April 24.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town, ongoing.
As T.S. Eliot said, ‘April is the cruelest month.” So take time off from the Taxman – at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.