By Pat Launer
They seek him here; they seek him there.
They’re thoroughly in the dark.
But don’t you know
The Pimpernel is right in Balboa Park!
Now the Beehive comes down, Billie’s back, and the Graduate is here
And a tragic Greek Vox is coming through, loud and juxtaposition clear.
Okay, swashbucklers… gird your loins, draw your swords and buckle your swashes….the Pimpernel is back. It’s the return of the Frank Wildhorn musical, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” now at Starlight Musical Theater in Balboa Park.
The story began as a novel, by the Hungarian-born English Baroness Emmuska Orczy, a 1905 potboiler set during the French Revolution. The show has undergone so many revisions since its 1997 Broadway opening that the 2000 tour that came (via Broadway San Diego) to the Civic Theatre was called Version 4.0.
It’s the tale of a British aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who, at home in England, acts the part of a superficial society fop, in order to conceal his secret identity as the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel. In case you didn’t know, a pimpernel is a flower of the primrose family. It also happens to be Sir Percy’s family crest, and he leaves it behind as his mark, whenever he swaggers into France to rescue various and sundry from, as one song puts it, “Madame Guillotine.” The story is pretty treacly at times, and Frank Wildhorn’s schmaltzy, pop-music score is often pedestrian and derivative, and frequently smacks of his dreadful “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Starlight artistic director Brian Wells has capably shepherded both musicals at Starlight, and he’s brought back some of the same cast. He gets the lavishness and high drama just right, though he tends to encourage actors to come downstage and belt out their songs concert-style, directly to the audience. This is especially accentuated in the performance of golden-voiced Annie Berthiaume, who plays the love interest Marguerite. A pop star in her native Canada, her bilingualism is a wonderful boon to her portrayal of the star of the Comédie Francaise. But it also furthers the tendency to put aCelinie Dion-like pop spin on all her songs. Sometimes, when she’s immersed in a duet with Edward Staudenmayer (who plays her husband Percy, the Pimpernel), they seem to be singing in two completely different styles. He’s in musical theater and she’s still in Vegas.
The Pimpernel is an 18th century comic-book superhero; he’s selfless and blustery, serious and comical; he gets the girl and he also gets a great wardrobe. The charismatic Staudenmayer rises to the occasion on all counts, and he has a gorgeous voice. His bio, amusingly, said, ‘Just can’t wait for the planes; bring ’em on!” Hope he got what he wanted!
As Chauvelin, the villain of the piece (who resembles Javert in “Les Miz”), T. Eric Hart, magnificent as Jekyll/Hyde last summer at Starlight, seemed to be channeling Hyde at times. His dark intensity, rich baritone and tendency toward histrionics worked well most of the time. But it was a bit disconcerting that the most French of all the characters had no French accent whatsoever, though Manchester-born Ron Choularton did as the dread Robespierre and of course, Berthiaume did as Marguerite. Dialect coach, anyone?? In another comic cameo, James Saba was humorous as the Prince of Wales.
The costumes alone are worth the price of admission (they were rented in for this production). The huge company cavorts and dances (clever choreography by David Brannen) to the excellent accompaniment of a robust 18-piece orchestra (directed by Parmer Fuller) that sounded twice that size. Overall, this is an impressively extravagant production, very well sung, if uninspired musically (thanks to Wildhorn). The musical may be melodramatic, but it isn’t totally mindless. After all, it venerates brains over brawn…. and in its mawkish way, it delivers the glitzy goods.
Turns out she doesn’t need Mick after all. Jerry Hall is actually the best thing in the touring production of “The Graduate” — except for the lighting. She isn’t the soft, come-hither Mrs. Robinson of Anne Bancroft, or the sultry-voiced Kathleen Turner. But as a classily brittle seductress, she does just fine. The rest of the cast seems to be yelling and/or over-acting, and the entire proceeding (imaginative sets and costumes by Rob Howell; dazzling lighting design by Hugh Vanstone) keeps making you think of the movie (“How did Dustin say that line that made it so funny, when it’s falling so flat now??” etc.).
This production (recreated by Peter Lawrence from the original adaptation and direction of Terry Johnson), is just too on-the-nose; it’s played completely for comedy, and lacks the dark undertones, the subtle cynicism of the film. But, on opening night, it rated a standing O nonetheless. Rider Strong (whatta name!!) is okay as Benjamin Braddock, the 1963 college grad who’s a little nihilistic and a lot aimless and lost, as he’s sucked into bed with his parents’ best friend. He has some credible scenes, but he never seems as smart or clever as the character is supposed to be. As Elaine, Mrs. R’s daughter, Devon Sorvari is shrill-voiced and kind of ditsy (no drop-dead gorgeous Katharine Ross she). Each of the parents has o convincing or comic scene, and the wedding (sans crucifixion symbolism) is actually kinda funny. If you don’t remember Mike Nichols’ remarkable film that well, you’ll probably love this sitcom-y show. It’s diverting, but it doesn’t plumb undergraduate angst; this is pure surface sheen…. Why else would the audience laugh at the confrontation between two men, one of whom has been having an affair with the wife of the other? Go figure.
(at the Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway/San Diego, through Sunday).
BEEHIVE COMES UNDONE
The tease is over. After more than 600 performances over a successful span of two years, “Beehive” is letting its hair down… and closing, as of January 4, 1004. Nearly 100,000 people have seen the show here, including award-winning actor/director Gary Sinise (twice!), a founding member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (famous for his film roles in “Forrest Gump,” “Of Mice and Men,” and onstage in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” etc.). He’s seen it — Have you? Last chance to relive the ’60s and to get down with some amazingly talented women singin’ their hearts out… making you laugh and weep and relive your past. And if you weren’t alive then… don’t worry. With all these knockout performances, there’s something here for everyone.
LATE NIGHT/LADY DAY
I’m thrilled to report that the spectacular (but short-lived) performance of Anasa Johnson as Billie Holiday is available for viewing again…. so don’t miss it this time. “An Evenin’ with Billie,” a production of the Ira Aldridge Repertory Theatre, began as a black dinner theater show downtown at Caesar Café. It was a brief but successful run — just not long enough for everyone who should’ve seen it to see and hear it. “Billie” will be performing late nights at 6th @ Penn theatre(10:30 Friday and Saturdays, 9:00 Sundays). It’s the perfect nightcap… and everyone knows a little blues/jazz is good for the soul.
The piece was created by Aldridge founder/director Calvin Manson, a former member of the San Diego Commission on Arts & Culture.
Here’s some of what I had to say about the when I first caught it in July:
…The show t isn’t much of a play — just a bit of bio between songs. The setting is a small Las Vegas jazz club, where Billie is recording a documentary of her music and life. There are a few unforgettable factoids, like this one: Billie called herself “a big fat healthy broad,” who weighed more than 200 pounds by age 12 and who “usedta couldn’t sing unless I had flowers in my hair.” Well, that explains the ever-present gardenia. Beyond a few snippets, we don’t learn too much, only that “singin’ is livin'” to Billie.
Anasa Johnson nails all the famous numbers — from the gut-wrenching “Strange Fruit” to the signature “God Bless the Child.” She isn’t trying to imitate Billie; she puts her own stamp and spin on the songs, whether she does them a capella (“Gimme a Pig’s Foot,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”) or with the fantastic band. Johnson has a glorious, silken voice, supple and expressive. She may not have had as much pain as Billie (in her life or her voice); she seems much more upbeat, but she can make you weep with the way she delivers a lyric or a melodic line. The band is amazing: musical director/keyboardist Harry James Williams is so good, he deserves to play a robust, grand piano; keyboards just don’t do justice to the music, his skill or his style. He interacts (or musically converses) wonderfully with alto sax-player Martin Murphy, who never seemed to look at any sheet music, even when Johnson changed the order or came back for an encore. Ross Renner played a mean bass guitar, and the trio’s act-opening numbers (“Take the A Train,” “Have Mercy on Me”) were terrific. It was a great evening of music all around — less theater than the club date it was written to be. The audience was rapt, and loving every minute of the show…. As I did. You’d be a fool to miss this Lady sing the blues.
VIVA LA VOX!
The ‘Vox Hellenic” series got off to an auspicious start this week, with two readings of “Agamemnon (a translation by Robert Fagles and an adaptation by Steven Berkoff), part one of the Oresteia the story of the returning King of Argos from his victory at Troy, a triumph that was assured by his sacrificing his daughter, after which his wife, Clytemnestra, takes revenge.
This is an exciting collaboration between Sledgehammer Theatre and Grass Roots Greeks, which you really shouldn’t miss, if you’re at all interested in drama, its roots, or why we are who we are (in and outside the theater). The Berkoff adaptation, which I first saw in its original mind-boggling form at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in L.A., was wonderfully well done by Sledge, excellently directed by Megan Keleher and extremely well-executed for a reading. The language of the text is rich, sensuous, muscular, gorgeous. And the oblique references to the (pointless) Vietnam War ring equally true today. The performances were gripping, and the language well handled, particularly by David Tierney (as Aegisthus)., Walter Ritter (Glaucus), Anthony Hamm (as Agamemnon) and most especially, Janet Hayatshahi, who made a chilling Clytemnestra.
The Fagles version proved a fascinating juxtaposition, with its intensity, emotional outbursts, and enhanced role for the seer Cassandra, captive priestess of Troy. Cxonvincingly portrayed by Celeste Innocenti. David Cohen was a compelling Agamemnon and Linda Castro a marvelous Clytemnestra. But the rest of the cast needed a lot more rehearsal. Some of these folks seemed to be reading the words for the very first time.
There are three more presentations of these translation/adaptation readings, and they’re really quite intriguing: “The Trojan Women” (9/15) is up next, followed by “Alcestis” (9/20), and “Electra” (9/27). All three translations are by our own resident scholar, Marianne McDonald. Like the production title ‘Vox Hellenic,’ (which McDonald says mixes Latin and Greek), the series itself is a lovely linguistic challenge.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“An Evenin’ with Billie” — late-night reprise of downtown’s fantastic performance by Anasa Briggs, singing the glorious songs of Billie Holiday; at 6th @ Penn; through 11/2
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Through 10/11
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; through 10/12.
“Sight Unseen” — provocative play; well crafted, well acted production; through 9/7
“Private Lives” — the most deliciously Cowardly lines! Smart, funny production @ Lamb’s Players Theatre; through 9/21
Put a little blues, comedy or drama in your life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.