KPBS AIRDATE: May 22, 1996
(MUSIC: “Time and Again”)
It’s high time. Time for another world premiere production to start in San Diego and wend its way to Broadway. There’s been an ongoing alternation between the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse. Now, it’s the Globe’s turn. And it’s time, with “Time and Again.”
Based on the 1970 Jack Finney time-travel adventure-novel that has a veritable cult following, the new show is big and lush and romantic — and not quite ready for prime New York time.
It’s a delicious challenge theatrically. The piece takes place in 1982 and 1882, and the creative team has devised all kinds of fun ways to go back and forth in time. It’s the storytelling that bogs down the proceedings.
Si Morley is this modern New York artist who’s working half-heartedly at an advertising agency that doesn’t tap his potential. He’s chosen for a government experiment that transports him back 100 years. He jumps at the chance of a more interesting life, and, though he has a lovely fiancée back home in New York, he falls hopelessly in love with an even lovelier New Yorker — who lives in 1882.
The new show, with book by Jack Viertel, takes a huge amount of time in the first act showing how Si is prepped for his trip back in time, and it gets very muddy in the second act, trying to tie up loose ends.
But in the middle, we get thoroughly caught up in the sheer beauty and imagination of it all. Director Jack O’Brien keeps us magically enchanted; things are swirling but not frenetic, sentimental but not soppy. The costumes are jaw-dropping gorgeous; the lighting, scenic design and projections work wonderfully, most of the time.
I personally would have preferred more dancing, but the singing is flawless. The string-heavy, 21-piece orchestra in the pit is a delight. And they don’t overwhelm the magnificent voices of Howard McGillin’s Si or Jessica Molaskey’s lush alto as Si’s modern-day main squeeze; or Rebecca Luker’s achingly sweet soprano as the naive but sensible 19th century sweetie.
McGillin has the most to do but the least to work with; in one of the most melodic, tuneful songs, the women sing a duet across the centuries, asking him, “Who are you Anyway?” Sometimes the audience has the same question, but it’s because Si is insufficiently drawn, not overly mysterious.
SONG: “Who Are You Anyway?”
Most of the songs are written in minor keys, and that renders Walter Edgar Kennon’s score rather sad, almost maudlin. Some of his lyrics are quite clever, such as the upbeat “Modern Romance”, but the tired words of the title song could use a lot more spark and sparkle.
Overall, the show is destined for a high-profile afterlife. With some changes, which are already in the works, it will be charming. It plays deftly into our collective soft heart for musicals, nostalgia, period clothes, time travel and unadulterated romance. As the song says, I hope it goes on to lead a “Fairy-Tale Life.”
MUSIC: “Fairy-Tale Life”
In some ways, the recent changes in South Africa are nothing short of fairy tale material. Playwright Athol Fugard, who always has his eye on his country, now has cause for considerably more hope. And that is sweetly reflected in his latest work, “Valley Song,” currently having its West coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
A very spare piece — three characters, two actors — it is steeped in autobiography. The central white figure, called The Author, is the narrator of the story and a character in it. Max Wright switches from Author into Abraam “Buks” Jonkers, a 76 year-old mixed-race farmer who lives on the arid Karoo land with his spirited granddaughter, Veronica, magnificently played by Akosua Busia.
Fugard grew up in the Karoo, and he recently went back there and bought a house and a piece of land. Two townspeople he met there, an old man who grew vegetables, and a young girl who sang her original songs for money, inspired the play. In fact, in its South African, London and New York premieres, Fugard himself played himself, the aging author who’s “not as brave about change as I would like to be.” To see him play this soul-searching role must have been breath-taking.
But Wright does a fine job, although I might like to see just a tad more difference in dialects as he smoothly shifts between the writer and the illiterate sharecropper. What captures the attention, more than the simple and surreal background, more even than the poetic words and their stark visual imagery, is Busia, who is, all at once, petulant, exuberant, adolescent; a girl, a woman, a fabulous singer and a symbol of the future. She is inspired and inspirational.
Director Lisa Peterson has a sure hand and a firm grasp on the beautiful simplicity of the piece. She keeps the action small but intriguing. She lets the words transport us. She lets the emotion seep in unnoticed. And it does. In the brilliance of true art, we find touching universals in the detail of the particular.
Traversing a far different landscape, playwright Claire Chaffee also speaks knowingly and poignantly. In “Why We Have a Body,” she gives us women, young and not-so-young, lost and searching, confused about their world, their sexuality and their bodies. A bit more despairing, amid very lyrical writing, but maybe there’s a ray of hope here, too.
At Diversionary Theatre, Darla Cash has directed at her quirky and imaginative best, mining the humor, pathos and sexuality to excellent effect. She has assembled a marvelous cast: Wendy Arons as the no-nonsense lesbian investigator; Christina Courtenay as the explorer-mother in search of herself; Nancy Weiss as the sexy but sexually confused paleontologist; and, fairly stealing the show with her emotional extremes and outrageous versatility, Sioban Dixon as a petty criminal obsessed with Joan of Arc.
The rear-wall projections are terrific. This is the best show Diversionary has done since its unforgettable “Porcelain.” Warning: There is nudity, but there’s a heckuva lot more than that. Catch this if you can.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.