By Pat Launer
It must have been written in the stars
To spend the week with two different Czars!
Both Tevye and Boris had Russian fear,
While Tennessee viewed things Cloudy and Clear.
And whaddaya know? I developed a yen
To see DQ do battle again.
THE SHOW: Fiddler on the Roof, the beloved American classic, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. The Welk got in under the wire on this one, bringing back, for the fourth time, the show that has been the most popular and successful in the theater’s 27 year history. With a new national tour of Fiddler in the works, the rights to the show have been withdrawn for the next two years; hence, Lyric Opera San Diego was forced to yank the show from its 2007 season
THE STORY: Since the play premiered in 1964 and the movie came out in 1971, it’s hard to believe that a senior audience would be unfamiliar with the musical. But on the night I was there, a fair number of the attendees seemed unacquainted with the particulars of the plot and the Jewish traditions. Originally adapted from Sholom Aleichem’s short story, “Tevye and His Daughters,” Fiddler might have been the first (in a long line of subsequent musicals) to tackle dark subjects like persecution, poverty and the problems of holding onto tradition in a hostile world. But the tale of the dairyman and his five progeny continues to strike a universal chord, because the immigrants of today are no different from those of the past.
The action, set in Czarist Russia, 1905, in the fictional Jewish village of Anatevka , primarily concerns the evolving social mores and the difficulty of holding on to old ways. Each of Tevye’s daughters challenges the traditions of the past. One falls for a poor tailor; another, a revolutionary whom she follows to Siberia . And the third runs off with a Cossack. According to the dictates of the religion (Orthodox Judaism proscribes intermarriage), the play climaxes in one gut-wrenching moment, as an agonized Tevye denies his child, saying “Chava is dead to us.” The themes of the play remain haunting and timely: impoverished people trying to hold onto their cultural beliefs and practices, forced out of their homeland for religious reasons.
Theater trivia : During the Broadway run of more than 3200 performances, Pia Zadora took over as the youngest daughter, and Bette Midler was seen for a time as the oldest. And Isaac Stern’s violin was featured on the movie soundtrack.
THE PLAYERS /THE PRODUCTION: The singing is excellent in this production, thanks to outstanding voices and the musical/vocal direction of Justin Gray. There are only three musicians in the pit (Gray on piano; Kathy Gray on violin; Mike Masessa in drums) but it sounds like a lot more. The set is minimal but suggestive, and the costumes (Carlotta Malone) are just right. I had some quibbles with a few Jewish pronunciations and practices (e.g., those pesky Hebrew/Yiddish gutturals in ‘L’CHaim” and “CHava” and the untilted mezzuzah on the doorpost, for example. There was no Jewish cast member or consultant on the production. But the cast was unequivocally spirited and talented. Joe Matarazzo, a Tevye veteran if there ever was one (this is his 13th time playing the role), masterfully conveys the character’s conversational relationship with his Maker, though he isn’t as preternaturally funny as some Tevyes. As his wife, Cathy Gene Greenwood (also reprising her character at the Welk) is more gentle than other Goldes I’ve seen, and a lot less shrewish. When she’s more domineering and he’s more mousy in her presence, the humor is more pronounced. All the daughters are lovely and sing wonderfully: Angelina Holliman as Tzeitel, Michaelia Leigh as Hodel and recent SDSU MFA Musical Theatre grad Nicole Werner as Chava. Another SDSU alum, who’s been working steadily around town, honing his prodigious skills, is Eric Vest, who makes for an agile and likable Motel the Tailor. Jason Maddy’s Perchik has just the right intensity for a revolutionary. Victoria Strong lives up to her name as the ghost of Fruma Sarah, and she makes a sparkling addition to a provocative blacklit spin on the dream sequence.
Director/choreographer Ray Limon only cast three bona fide dancers: Roddy Kennedy, Brandon Pohl and Jason Fahey, but they show their mettle, particularly in the wedding scene and bottle dance. It’s great to see San Diego stalwarts Navarre Perry, Von Schauer and returnee Isaac Riddle onstage, and together. If you haven’t seen Fiddler in awhile, this is your opportunity. Who knows when (or if) the touring production will be stopping here? And boy, they sure don’t write ‘em like they used to; almost every song is an unforgettable singalong, and the story still has the power to break your heart.
THE LOCATION: The Welk Theatre, through April 1
THE RUSSIAN MACBETH
THE SHOW: Boris Godunov , the original version of the opera, composed by Modest Mussorgsky in 1869. This is the first time the San Diego Opera has mounted this version; the company presented the 1872 Rimsky-Korsakov adaptation in 1989, as part of the U.S./Russian Arts Festival
THE BACKSTORY: There are half a dozen versions of this opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s play of the same name, combined with passages from Nikolai Karamzin’s “History of the Russian Empire.” Mussorgsky himself created two versions; his friend Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote two. Shostakovich penned one, and in 1953, John Gutman and Karol Rathaus composed still another for the Metropolitan Opera. The second Rimsky-Korsakov version is the one most often heard, and it’s the one the San Diego Opera has presented before. Regardless of the version, this is not a tight or traditional tragedy. In fact, little happens onstage, despite the pomp, ceremony and citizen protests. It’s more like a chronicle, a series of scenes from Russian history.
THE STORY: The opera is set in Russia and Poland , 1598-1605 and explores, in seven scenes, the political infighting for the Russian throne. The Czar Ivan the Terrible died in 1584. Boris Godunov had been the Czar’s closest friend and adviser. Godunov arranged for the murder of Dmitri, son of the Czar. So when the Czar dies, Boris becomes ruler of Russia . Meanwhile, in Poland , a young monk named Grigori realizes that he’s the same age as Dmitri would have been had he lived. He pretends to be the deceased son and devises a plan to take over the crown himself. He raises an army and marches on Moscow , which forces Boris to confront his guilty past. Plagued by Macbeth-like ghosts, Boris goes mad and dies; with his final breath, he asks God to forgive him and declares his son Feodor to be Czar. The opera ends here, but in reality, the melodrama continued. Young Feodor reigned mere weeks before both he and his mother were murdered. In 1605, the false Dimitri became Czar, but his power was also short-lived; the traitorous Shuisky, Boris’ former lieutenant and adversary, had Dmitri killed. Shuisky stayed on the throne for just four years, at which time he was deposed. Three more Dimitri pretenders followed. In 1613, Mikhail Romanov was crowned, initiating the Romanov dynasty which was to last 300 years.
THE PLAYERS /THE PRODUCTION: Mussorgsky’s music was based on folk melodies combined with church hymns, and it has a decidedly Slavic feel. The Russian populace, in fact, primarily the poor, play a major role in the proceedings. In this production, there are more than 100 San Diego Symphony musicians in the pit (under the assured direction of Russian-born Valery Ryvkin) and more than 100 chorus/supers onstage (stage direction by Lotfi Mansouri). It’s quite musically robust. The first notes, the sad sound of an oboe, set the tone for the whole evening: somber, slow and minor key. Overall, it’s a low-key opener for the Opera’s 42nd season. The suggestive sets (from Seattle Opera), with their stark black background, and glittery, well-lit wall of saints and icons, begin to feel repetitious in their reappearances, and the Czar’s apartments are the least opulent imperial digs imaginable. The (rented) costumes are aptly dingy for the peasants and sumptuous for the Boyars, priests and royals, most colorful and striking during the coronation scene. With so little action and minimal movement overall, the singing has to carry the entire evening. Fortunately, the voices are outstanding.
In the title role, Ferruccio Furlanetto, the internationally acclaimed basso who was the first Italian to sing Boris in Russia , proves a captivating presence, with his rich, stentorian tones and his acting acumen. His literal fall from grace at the end, when in death, he plummets down several stairs from his throne, is a stunning theatrical moment, the most active and provocative of this production. Furlanetto shows an impressive emotional range, convincingly tender with his son (appealing mezzo Lisa Agazzi) and ferocious in his madness. The opera is uniquely bass-heavy, and the cast rises to the occasion. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow is excellent as the aging historian/monk Pimen, and Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov is potent as the drunken friar Varlaam. The tenors are strong, too: Allan Glassman as the conniving Shuisky and Jay Hunter Morris as young Grigori, the pretender to the throne. In very minor roles, the women shine as best they can: mezzo Judith Christin amusing as the Hostess of the Inn , and soprano Inna Dukach affecting as Boris’ heartbroken daughter, whose fiancé has been killed. With so much intrigue and murder, there is surprisingly little drama, and that makes the relatively short opera (2 ¾ hours) seem protracted, despite the acting and musical prowess.
THE LOCATION: The Civic Theatre, through February 4
SOMETIMES, THERE ARE SECOND CHANCES
At the request of San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, I caught a late performance of his world premiere comedy, Don Quixote , written by Paul Magid of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, based on the classic by Miguel de Cervantes. Many cuts and changes had been implemented since the opening, so I thought I’d take a second look. Woodhouse also extended an invitation to 400 of the theater’s subscribers, those who’d seen the show weeks ago, during previews. I was glad I got the (rare) opportunity to see a new work later in its run. There had, indeed, been many modifications, and they were all for the better. The juggling by the Flying Karamazovs was much more integrated into the action (as “the Moorish game of pins, formerly banned as devil worship”). The jokes, actions and shenanigans are still often silly, but there’s much more focus and gravitas now; the piece is centered not only on the Cervantes story, but also on the former success of religious harmony in Andaluz, where Muslim, Christian and Jew had gotten along before the Inquisition tore it all apart. And the title character actually learns something in this version. At first, his knight errant is fueled by Christian fanaticism; vows to kill the various ‘infidels’ (Muslims and Jews) in his midst. But he gradually realizes that the Moor Cidi Hamedi Benengeli (a charming fictional addition to the Cervantes story) is indeed his friend, and a message of religious tolerance is conveyed. The number of episodes and adventures has been reduced to good effect (15-20 minutes have been taken out of the production, which was definitely too long in its first incarnation). The incident in the “ Cave of Montecinos ” is still the weakest segment, confusing and ill-defined. There’s far more balance among the characters now; before, Cidi (Paul Magid, who is mesmerizing) overshadowed everyone. He remains the most fascinating character, the one who serves as our narrator and guide, and writes the Don’s story before Cervantes does. But Sancho seems to have more stage time, and the Don (whom Sancho repeatedly calls “DQ”) is a more sympathetic man, who takes a substantial emotional journey, not just flights of fancy. Everything works better, and now it’s possible to see this production having legs (i.e., a future in other venues). Bravo to the creative team for their efforts – and to Woodhouse for making sure that they were seen by critics and the theater’s supporters.
The show continues through the weekend, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, closing Feb. 4
A fine time was had by all at the reading of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, one of the last plays written by Tennessee Williams, presented as part of Diversionary Theatre’s “Queer Theatre, Taking Center Stage” series of new and little-known works. A highly autobiographical, impressionistic drama framed as a memory play, the story takes place in the playwright’s mind, as he looks back at the summer of 1940, when he was 30, from the vantage point of 1980 , when he’s 70. Filled with longing and regret, and loaded with juicy cameo appearances (a rough seaman, a Jewish gangster, two predatory producers and Tallulah Bankhead), the play focuses on a doomed triangle – the young, struggling playwright, a beautiful boy dancer and his female companion, as they briefly came together that summer in Provincetown. The young playwright is a clear stand-in for Williams; the beautiful young dancer, Kip (real name) was the first and perhaps the lasting love of his life. Clare (a fictional character) was also in love with Kip. In real life, after Williams’ intense six-week affair with Kip, the younger man returned to his girlfriend. But Williams carried Kip’s picture till the day he died.
With its fantasies and ghostly visitations, the play is an unflinching look at the life of a gay artist in mid-century America , with all the gritty compromises that entailed. But the split-second time-traveling proved confusing for the audience, as they related in the spirited post-performance talkback. I was so pleased to be a part of this venture. While not, by any means, Williams’ finest theatrical effort, it’s an intriguing look at his late-life attempts at playing with theatrical form, and his own view of his life, losses, weaknesses and temptations. As such, it represents a fascinating piece of theater history. The cast was wonderful to work with: Lance Rogers, Erick Sunquist, Jeannine Marquie, Robin Christ, Jill Drexler, Duane Leake, Ted Reis, and as my lascivious Broadway producer husband, Sam Woodhouse. We all had a fine time under Ruff Yeager’s astute direction. Ruff had done a great deal of reading and prep for the presentation, and he brought considerable knowledge and insight to the effort. Still, I doubt you’ll be seeing a full production any time soon. The play is seldom done for a reason.
Next up in the series at Diversionary: Passing Ceremonies by North Carolina playwright Steve Willis, directed by Floyd Gaffney. The play, which celebrates LGBT Black History Month, concerns Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce and modern-day poet Essex Hemphill, meeting somewhere between life and death to discuss what it means to be black, gay and an artist. The playwright will be present for the readings. February 17-19.www.diversionary.org
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Happy Birthday, Chuck! In commemoration of the birth of Charles Darwin, Dr. Baird & the Opossums of Truth will perform a birthday concert, an evening of humorous folk songs about science, the universe, evolution and rationality. Get a Big Bang out of the group that could be considered something like the love-child of Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl, Mark Russell and The Weavers. The Gospel According to Darwin plays for one night only at North Coast Repertory Theatre: Feb. 6 at 7:30pm. www.northcoastrep.org
…The Carlsbad Playreaders presents The Ladies of the Camellias, directed by Marc Overton, featuring Rosina Reynolds and Erika Beth Phillips as the great divas, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Monday, Feb. 5, 7:30pm at the Carlsbad Dove Library.
… Scripps Ranch Theatre opens Two for the Seesaw, William Gibson’s dramedy about two lost souls in Manhattan : an uptight Midwest attorney and an impulsive dancer from the Bronx . Michelle DeFrancesco and Bob Himlin star, under the direction of David Ainsworth. Feb. 9-March 10, in the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant University ; www.scrippsranchtheatre.org.
… Those potent Southern women of Steel Magnolias play through this weekend at New Vision Theatre in Oceanside . www.nvtheatre.com
…Celebrate Black History Month: Cygnet Theatre continues its partnership with the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre for the five-play reading series of plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. If you missed the knockout readings of Fences or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you get another chance to check ‘em out at City Heights Performance Annex, one matinee performance only. Fences plays on Feb. 11 at 2pm and Ma Rainey on Feb. 25 at 2pm. 619-641-6123. On Feb. 12, Fences will be performed at USD.
The next August Wilson reading at Cygnet is the provocative, poetic Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Floyd Gaffney, with an all-star cast that includes Mark Broadnax and Monique Gaffney (currently sizzling in Cygnet’s Yellowman); Antonio T.J. Johnson; Mark Christopher Lawrence; Sylvia M’lafi Thompson; Che Lyons, Yolanda Franklin; Ron Choularton; Joe Powers, and others. March 5, 6 and 13 at Cygnet. On Monday, March 12, the production travels north to Moonlight’s Avo Theatre.
… Speaking of Moonlight, the company is launching its second annual WordsWork at the Avo playreading series, beginning with an exciting production of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, starring none other than Moonlight’s beloved producing artistic director, Kathy Brombacher (recent Patté winner of a Shiley Lifetime Achievement Award), teamed up with Sandra Ellis-Troy, Melissa Fernandes and Jim Chovick, directed by Jim Caputo. Should be something to see. Monday, Feb. 12 at 7:30pm.
…Get the kids ready: The Missoula Children’s Theatre is returning for its 8th annual residency at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. The world –renowned touring company, which casts local youngsters in its productions and conducts theater seminars at area schools, will be in Poway April 9-14, to produce the musical The Little Mermaid.. Auditions for 50 local kid performers will be held on Monday April 9 at 4pm at the Poway Center . Students grades K-12 are welcome; no experience necessary. The one-week, intensive theater experience is presented free of charge by the PCPA Foundation, as part of its “Arts in Education” program. The musical will be performed on Saturday, April 14 at 3 and 7 pm. www.powayarts.org
…Happy V-D (that’s Valentine’s Day!!)… There will be Vagina Monologue productions all over town this month, at most of the colleges and at the LGBT Center . The OnStage Playhouse production takes place Feb. 16-18, with proceeds benefiting Casas Seguras in Chula Vista . To provide additional assistance, bring new or slightly used clothing, toiletries, diapers, etc. to the performance. www.onstageplayhouse.org .
… New Theater coming to town: The brand new San Diego Musical Theatre is getting ready to launch. Their Fundraising Gala, a ‘New York Extravaganza’ to be held March 10 at the Hilton Hotel Mission Valley , features star performers such as Misty Cotton, Jenn Grinels and Jim Chatham. The “main event” is the San Diego regional premiere of The Full Monty, running May 4-13 at the Birch North Park Theatre. The 2008 season opens in January with Guys and Dolls. The ambitious goal of executive directors Gary and Erin Lewis is five musicals a year, in their own Performing Arts Center. Check ‘em out, and support this new venture at www.sdmt.org
.. With its finger always on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist, the improvisational comedy troupe, The Fun House, is running MySpace, The Musical, created live on the spot, inspired by the wildly popular online social community. Audience members will volunteer to let the group read their online profiles live from the stage, and a musical will be created from the content. Fridays at 7:45pm, Feb. 2, 9, 16, 23. The regular Theatresports competition plays on Saturdays at 7:45 pm and at 9:45pm every Saturday in February, there’s The Blue Show: Late Night Improv, the adults-only entertainment that allows the improvisers to let their hair down. Late Night tix are 50% off throughout February. www.improvise.net
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Don Quixote – newly revised since it opened, this world premiere comedy makes a potent statement about religious tolerance (and there’s plenty of high-end juggling, too!)
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 4.
Yellowman – provocative play, marvelously designed and directed, superbly acted
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 11
Fiddler on the Roof – wonderful nostalgia, wonderfully sung
At the Welk Theatre, through April 1
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Ignore what the Ground Hog says. Plan to stay warm and dry in a theater near you.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.