Published in Décor & Style Magazine
Onstage this month: a few spitfires and a Spitfire Grill.
The Spitfire Grill is the new musical based on the 1996 indie film of the same name. Into a town with no future steps a girl with a past. The movie, written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff, concerned a female ex-con who appears in the small, gossip-ridden town of Gilead, Maine (inexplicably transformed onstage to Gilead, Wisconsin). She goes to work at the titular diner, hoping to capture a second chance at a meaningful life. Rumor, scandal and secrets abound, but the stranger re-awakens the whole town’s potential for healing.
The musicalized version, which debuted in New York just after 9/11 last year, was nominated for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical by the Outer Critics Circle, and was considered by the uncompromising New York Magazine critic, John Simon, to be “the best musical of 2001.” USA Today’s Elysa Gardner said The Spitfire Grill had “an abundance of warmth and goodwill [with] some of the most engaging and instantly infectious melodies I’ve heard on an original musical in some time.”
Composer James Valcq, a Milwaukee native, has said “the story is all about healing, forgiveness and rebirth.” Sorrow and healing attended the writing of the show as well. Co-creator Fred Alley, who wrote book and lyrics, died unexpectedly last May, while jogging on a rural Wisconsin road. Just three months earlier, Spitfire had won the prestigious Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2001 Richard Rodgers Award for new musicals.
The uplifting tribute to the human spirit was just the ticket last September– and its inspirational message goes a long way this fall, too, when the show is being widely produced around the country. The Laguna Playhouse has snagged the West coast premiere, and Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista follows close behind with the San Diego debut. Both theatres’ resident directors have garnered critical and audience acclaim for magnificent productions: Nick DeGruccio with Laguna’s Side Show, and Kathy Bombacher with Moonlight’s Ragtime. Expect no less with Spitfire Grill.
Despite the sadness that attended its inception and opening, the folk-pop show has been called “an upbeat little musical with a great big heart.” (11/2-12/1 at Laguna Playhouse, 949-497-2787; 1/30-2/23/03 at Moonlight Stage Productions, Vista; 760-639-6199).
Another San Diego spitfire is playwright Jason Connors, who won the statewide Young Playwrights contest in 2000 when he was 17. Now he’s penned a new piece, which is being directed by one of San Diego’s most venerable, venerated veterans: Craig Noel, Executive Director of the Globe Theatres.
“I’ve seen three of Jason’s plays now,” said Noel, 87, San Diego’s first Living Treasure, who has produced or directed 365 plays over six decades at the Globe. “And I think he’s terribly talented.”
Connors has once again won the statewide contest with Henry Wants a Renaissance, based partly on local history. Set in 1935, at the time of the California-Pacific International Exposition, the coming-of-age story revolves around a sickly 18 year-old (Henry) who yearns to go to college and become an artist. But his father wants him to take over the family farm in Mission Valley. Henry meets up with Will, an actor who speaks in iambic pentameter and encourages Henry to go to the Exposition, especially to see the Shakespeare productions at the Globe theatre. When he does, he realizes that he can, in fact, shape his own life.
The similarities to Craig Noel’s story (which Connors didn’t know when he wrote the play) are startling. Noel got his first glimpse of the Globe at the California Exposition. He performed on the Globe stage in 1937 and first directed there in 1939. Noel was enthralled by the young writer’s creativity and theatricality.
“He has humor, imagination and talent,” he said. Connors was impressed but not intimidated by having Noel direct his work. “I feel admiration and trust,” he said. “I wish I could lead my life close to the way he does. A long-standing member of the San Diego theatre community. Good Lord! I’d love to do that.”
Connors was thrilled by his play’s parallels to Noel’s life, and added yet another perceived connection. “I saw a picture of Craig when he was my age, and we kind of look the same.”
The lyrical drama, Henry Wants a Renaissance, is one of four winning plays to be presented at this year’s 18th annual Plays by Young Writers (10/31-11/9 on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage; 619-239-8222).
Fireballs come in all shapes and sizes at Eveoke Dance Theater. But the spark that lights the flame is the exceptional, energetic activist/choreographer Gina Angelique. This month, Angelique teams up with acclaimed and imaginative director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg to present a cross-gender Taming of the Shrew.
In 2000, when Angelique was co-founder and curator of the first San Diego Durga Festival for women’s performance, she invited Sonnenberg to participate. The director premiered a one-night-only production of a gender- and mind-bending Shrew.
“I had read the play again,” said Sonnenberg. “and I couldn’t imagine why I thought it was funny as a kid. It hit me completely differently at 30. And I thought, ‘What would happen if the roles were reversed? Would people still think it was funny?'”
So she kept the text intact, but cast a man as Katherine and a woman as Petruchio. “Some people thought it was too political,” Sonnenberg confessed. “They thought I had an agenda. But in all honesty, I was asking a question myself as an artist and a woman. And I still am.
“In this play,” she continues, “supposedly a Battle of the Sexes, someone has to win, and it’s the woman who loses. She doesn’t fit in her social order or class, she won’t stay in the confines of expectation.”
Interestingly, as Sonnenberg points out, “this is the only Shakespeare play that really deals with marriage and relationship after the actual wedding. In the play, the wedding happens, and then he takes her home to ‘tame’ her. Now that I’m a wife, the whole thing brings up different questions. I think people will really hear this play for the first time. Petruchio tortures her. We forgive it because in some ways, we’re pre-programmed to think women belong to men. It’s actually easy to like Kate; she’s a fighter. But the play revels in her humiliation, in breaking her will. When people first saw my production, they thought, ‘She wasn’t that bad, why does he say those horrible things to her?’ This is like the universal switch. It forces us to examine what we think of as female and male. And an intentionally spare production, with the roles switched, forces people to listen to the words in a way they haven’t before.”
Angelique sees the collaboration and the work as “very very irreverent,” which is just what she loves. “It’s not men playing women in women’s roles, ” she says. “It’s men playing men in women’s roles. The issues become clear; it’s not about misogyny; it’s a play about oppression.”
Two of Angelique’s company dancers — the gifted Elizabeth Marks and Anthony Rodriguez — will depict three stages in the development of gender roles. In the prologue, which represents the toddler years, there’s “a great sense of play, and no knowledge or awareness of gender distinctions.” The second stage depicts the beginning of gender awareness. In the Epilogue, “we see young women and men learn to use their sexuality; we see the effects of the gender conditioning the play puts us through — the same we see in society, family practices and the media.”
The creators feel confident that the production will, as Angelique puts it, “celebrate Shakespeare’s poetic brilliance, and at the same time reveal the deeper, more disturbing issues underneath. It’s about oppression, regardless of gender.”
“I think it’s going to be a fun experience,” adds Sonnenberg. “I think people will like it more than they think, and it will raise for them the same questions about gender roles as it did for me.” (11/8-12/1 at Sushi Performance Space; 619-238-1153).
Another twisted take on a familiar classic is the jarring, visually stunning new interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was recently seen on television. The groundbreaking “rock opera,” the first collaboration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, changed the face of musical theater when it debuted on Broadway in 1971.
Telling the story of the last seven days in the life of Christ, the musical began as an arena rock concert; in July 1971, it played to 12,00 screaming Pittsburgh fans. The 1973 movie gave us an impromptu enactment by a band of hippies in the desert. The latest revival conveys a much more modern sense of civic unrest; politicians and idealists confront each other in a stark landscape, as young ‘freedom fighters’ get caught up in the swirl of Christ’s radical religious message. The crucial revelation for this Jesus is that his own followers are seeking a violent revolution.
The new Superstar points out the dangers of cultish spirituality. Instead of a benign Christian rock musical, the show has morphed into a statement of cynicism in a faithless age. This production touches on many modern manias: obsession with celebrity, political power-brokering, sexual anxiety and spiritual crisis. This Jesus is discomfited by stardom, impatient with disciples, tired of his own destiny and ready for death. It is a cautionary tale for contemporary times.
The new national tour springs to life as part of the ninth season of presentations by McCoy Rigby Entertainment (former gymnast/current musical theater star Cathy Rigby and her husband Tom McCoy) at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. (11/1-17 at La Mirada Theatre in La Mirada; 714-994-6310).
All told, that’s enough theatrical fire to spark anyone’s interest.
Pat Launer is resident theater critic at KPBS radio and TV. Her theater reviews can be heard Fridays at 8:30am on 89.5FM, or viewed online at kpbs.org, gaylesbiantimes.com and at patteproductions.com.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.