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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney
 "Ragtime" and the Ford Center Lyric Facade
"Ragtime" lights up the Broadway sky atop the currently troubled Livent Ford Theatre Center. Photo Copyright © Glenn Loney 1999/The Everett Collection.
 Leos Janácek's "Kátya Kabanová"
 Thomas Hampson's Werther
 "Lucia de Lammermoor" at the Met
 Miranda's "Wren"
 Caryl Churchill's "Blue Heart"
 Harold Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes"
 Hyperactive "High Life"
 "Charlie Brown" Resurrected
 Asian-Americans "Making Tracks"
 Black Vaudeville on the TOBA Circuit
 Wooster Group's "HOUSE/LIGHTS"
 Athol Fugard's "Captain's Tiger"
 James Naughton at the Promenade
 Berkeley Rep's "Collected Stories"
 San Francisco's Z Space Studios
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LYRIC FACE-SAVING--The elegant Georgian facade of the Lyric Theatre, "Historically Preserved" on 43rd Street as part of the Ford Center. This was the original "Family Entrance" to the Lyric, which could also be entered from 42nd Street. The now vanished playhouse was constructed in 1903 for actor Richard Mansfield's drama seasons, to be shared with the operettas of Reginald DeKoven. Photo Copyright ©—Glenn Loney 1999/The Everett Collection.
"Ragtime" and the Lyric Theatre Facade:When the Lyric Theatre was built in 1903, it was designed to be time-shared by seasons of drama featuring the great thespian, Richard Mansfield. And by operetta productions from the pen of composer Reginald DeKoven.
These were under the auspices of the American School of Opera. DeKoven was riding high at this time, and his handsome mansion can still be seen on Park Avenue.
Today Mansfield is virtually forgotten. And DeKoven would be also, but for the fact that the hit song from his Broadway show, "Robin Hood" is still much in demand at weddings. This Golden Oldie is, of course, "Oh, Promise Me."
That's a song stockholders in Livent might well be singing as well.
Livent is the company which caused two of the historic theatres on 42nd Street—the Lyric and the Apollo—to vanish. The Lyric was designed by V. Hugo Koehler; the Apollo, built as the Bryant in 1910, by Eugene DeRosa.
They were replaced, however, with the handsome, spacious Ford Center for the Performing Arts, current home of "Ragtime." And some of the prominent architectural features of both the Apollo and the Lyric have been recreated in the new theatre's foyers and auditorium.
The designers were also able to integrate some handsome and historic decorative details from the previous playhouses in the new one.
Other Ford Centers were already projected when this one opened. But those plans now seem problematic, owing to the legal difficulties of former Livent principals.
Under indictment for fraud are Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb, co-founders of Livent, and producers of such major shows as "Phantom of the Opera,"
"Parade," and "Fosse." As reported in the "Daily News"—and other papers, as well—the Securities & Exchange Commission has charged the duo with concealing losses on "Showboat" and "Ragtime" to make them appear more successful than they actually were.
It is charged that they conspired to buy up $380,000 of "Ragtime" tickets when it was playing in Los Angeles. This alleged action was supposed to make it seem a big hit, prior to its New York opening.
That's a lot of paper to spread around Greater LA!
Nothing, however, has yet been proven. Whatever the outcome, it is important that the future of Broadway's newest theatre not be damaged by this. As well as the prospects of those Livent productions currently running.
"Fosse," "Phantom," "Parade," and "Ragtime" are important musical mainstays of the Broadway season. No one wants to see any of these closed down because of Livent's legal or financial problems.
Trio at the Metropolitan Opera:
Malfitano in an Ostrovsky Storm
In Leos Janácek's "Kátya Kabanová" [****]
Nine years ago this month, Robert Israel made his Met debut as a designer with the recently revived production of "Kátya Kabanová." With Israel's Postmodernist scenic environments and the intimate staging of Jonathan Miller, this still looks very much like a cutting-edge European production.
MOTHER-IN-LAW TROUBLE--Catherine Malfitano as Leos Janácek's doomed heroine, Kátya Kabanová, at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Metropolitan Opera/Winnie Klotz.
And, with a fine cast headed by Catherine Malfitano as the fragile, unhappy Kátya, it is vocally and dramatically the equal of any continental production as well.
As a weak-willed and helpless young wife, in a backward Russian village on the Volga, Malfitano's personal charisma and vocal power sometimes seem at odds with the character's fears and vacillations.
Domineered by her insulting implacable mother-in-law [Judith Forst] and neglected by her alcoholic wimp of a husband [Robert Brubaker], Katya can't seem to do anything right. Eventually, that includes having a ten-night fling, while her husband is away, with a smitten young lover.
Not only is this a terrible sin in the eyes of the Orthodox Church, but it's also a moral and social disaster in the backward, superstitious, hypocritical village Alexander Ostrovsky created in his major play, "The Storm."
Janácek was so impressed by the power of the story—and the pathos of the heroine's desperate, hopeless situation—that he pared the play to its essentials and made it musically one of his most compelling and beautiful scores.
Overcome by remorse and fear—and certain that she will, or must, be punished for her adultery—Kátya confesses before the entire community. With Mad Scene to match.
Then she leaps into the Volga, conveniently upstage.
Curiously, when the curtain rises at the Met, we seem to be in Rural New England, in Aaron Copeland and Martha Graham Country.
Israel's major set-piece looks like a solidly constructed Victorian farmhouse, which can be played both outside and in. It could also be used across the Lincoln Center Plaza if the New York State Theatre decides to mount another revival of "Oklahoma!"
But the Met audience knows it is not in Kansas—or Oklahoma—anymore because there is a strange multi-storied medieval Muscovite tower in the distance.
When the titular storm breaks out—gallons of real rain falling from the Met's flies!—villagers take shelter in a ruined church. It has remnants of once furious frescoes, depicting the tortures of the Damned. Visual fuel for Kátya's Remorse of Conscience.
Israel's church, however, looks more Bulgarian or Greek Orthodox than Russki. Some tiny medieval Byzantine towers lurk on the horizon, so you can be certain this isn't somewhere in New Hampshire.
Gil Wechsler's lighting is powerfully depressing. With such a starkly set stage, on a rough gray floor of thick boards and black, threatening skies, it's no wonder there are so many crazies and drunks in this malignant village.
The wonder is that there aren't more suicides!
The venerable Sir Charles Mackerras conducted with both power and nuance.
Thomas Hampson's, Jules Massenet's
And Johann Wolfgang Goethe's "Werther" [****]
Why would an outstanding baritone want to sing a tenor's role? When he is such a talented actor/singer as Thomas Hampson, perhaps because he believes he can create a richer, fuller character on stage.
HAMPSON'S BARITONE WERTHER--Baritone Thomas Hampson in the titular tenor role of Werther in Jules Massenet's opera. Photo: Metropolitan Opera/Winnie Klotz.
Tenors are seldom noted for a wide-ranging intelligence or a broad world-view. Hampson has both.
Missing some of the exaltation of tenor high notes is more than made up for the power and passion of Hampson's vocal and emotional performance as the unhappy Werther.
Susan Graham's Lotte is splendid, torn as she is between love and duty. Rebecca Evans, as her sister Sophie, is touching in her disappointment in Werther as a possible mate.
It is also some measure of the power of the narrative and Massenet's score that modern audiences can still be moved by heroic struggles of true lovers—separated by a previous promise of marriage—to behave honorably. Rather than give in to passionate impulses.
Having the Bailiff rehearse children in the holiday carol, "Noel," in high summer provides an ironic contrast with the song at Christmas as Werther is dying.
The current settings were first seen at the Met in 1971. They and the costumes were designed by my old friend, the late Rudolf Heinrich.
He managed to blend period French design influences and Impressionism—with jagged tree-branches growing out of the ceiling.
But it's an interesting take on the passions of Sturm und Drang Romanticism in a German Biedermeier world of order and duty.
John Cox's staging effective, and Donald Runnicles' conducting spirited.
The Bride of Lammermoor:
Lucia and the Fatal Wedding [**]
This is a new and rather strange Met production. Its staging—by the unjustly acclaimed Nicolas Joel—recalls the Bad Old Days of what director Margaret Webster called "Traffic Management" on the stage of the Old Met at Broadway and 39th.
MORE STATELY MANSIONS--Despite its shaky political and economic circumstances, the House of Lammermoor's actual residence on the Met Opera stage looks grander than Westminister Abbey. All this and more, thanks to the design excesses of Ezio Frigerio. Photo: Metropolitan Opera/Winnie Klotz.
The initial Trio is spread across the stage in line, blocked by a huge iron gate. "In One," as they used to say in Vaudeville.
There are almost no movement possibilities. And the entire chorus is hidden behind the great gate. Not for the only time in this long evening, either.
Considering how they club together, instead of interacting as characters in a powerful music-drama, hiding them may be a good thing.
Nicolas Joel's staging a disaster. The chorus huddles around the side-walls in the big scenes, where they might have been expected to react with some show of outrage or horror. At the close, they are again hidden behind parted gates.
The placement and movement of the principals is not much more exciting than a slow chess-game. Arturo enters urging Enrico to shake his hand, but the full stage separates them.
Why doesn't he walk right up to Enrico to greet him? Afraid of Scottish Flu?
The "Lucia" sets, by Ezio Frigerio, are more splendid than any Gothic Palace or Cathedral in Europe. Westminister Abbey pales in comparison.
The Lammermoor Family is on hard times, isn't it? Did they deplete their fortune with construction of Architectural Follies?
At least Brother Enrico is saving shillings and pence on Lucia's wardrobe. She wears same green dress initially and on morning of her wedding.
When Lucia is at the fountain, she looks like she's in front of the Sir Walter Scott Monument in Edinburgh. And the Family Castle seems to look out on an immense rocky escarpment.
Lucia's mad scene takes place in this huge quarry, vastly empty, so Swenson has to fill it. To her credit, she holds her own vocally.
But her grinning, raving madness is a bit of stage hokum Uta Hagen would never allow at the H-B Studios. Pulling at her hair, rolling her eyes, etc. This kind of Coarse Operatic Acting is embarrassing to watch.
When Chaplain Raimondo—who is dressed like Cardinal Richelieu on his day off—announces Lucia's murder of her bridegroom, the chorus expresses its "Horror."
Unfortunately, most of the courtiers were hardly disturbed by the news. As if they had just heard that the roast was burnt.
This is a really Retro production, lacking in imagination or power. But it is so solid and expensive it will have to be around a long time.
Ezio Frigerio has designed some magnificent productions. What went wrong here? And wife Franca Squarciapino's gowns and men's outfits were costly but not especially interesting.
Swenson was more boringly dressed than most of the female chorus.
Ramon Vargas as Edgardo was good but seemed to be pushing. Gregory 'Turay's Arthuro seemed rather tentative. Fu's Enrico was effortful vocally and awkward physically.
The principals sang the famed Sextette adequately and to rousing applause, But they just stood there. Do any of the Met stage-staff have more interesting staging ideas when this Architectural Monument is next revived?
Carlo Rizzi conducted.
Plays New & Old—
Miranda's "The Book of Wren""The story unfolds in an ancient wood on the border of England and Wales. The times are old and treacherous."
Needs Some Work on Its Book [**]
This information in the program appears at odds with the press-release for "The Book of Wren." In that document, we are told that Bronwen Denton-Davis' drama of Medieval evil-doings by High Catholic Clergy has relevance for the 1990s.
As your parish priest no longer has the power to burn witches—and Natural Healers are admired more than medical doctors by many—the parallels are hard to find.
This playwright with the Welsh name offers audiences a primitive nook of Britain where some are still dallying with Druid Gods. It is the mission of the new Abbott to suppress this evil and win souls to Christ.
This is not an easy task. Denton-Davis surely knows that the Welsh made far more fervent Primitive Methodists than they ever did Roman Catholics.
But the Abbott is a wicked man who wants to seize the book of—as he believes—magical incantations and spells given 10-year-old Madlin of Wren by her mother.
Given her before her Persian mother—crossing France with her Crusader-lover, enroute to Britain—was burned at the stake as a witch by the very same pious cleric.
In Valentina Fratti's modest production at the Miranda Theatre, Madlin [Tracy Sallows] is a grown, though crippled, woman, and a lovely one as well. But the Abbott seems not to have aged at all.
There is certainly potential in this improbable story, but the telling of it taxes credulity. Not only does the Abbott desire the powers of the Christian God, but he also has apparently omniverous sexual appetites.
And, in order to let the audience know what is really going on in his mind, he confides in detail to the naive young priest, Cullen Godwin [Robert Ross], secrets such a character would not share.
How about a soliloquy now and again?
The real relevance in this play seems to be its similarities to Victorian Melodrama. This is reinforced by some performers who need several more sessions at the H-B Studios.
The Miranda is an attractive, intimate theatre-space. And Valentina Fratti has a good track-record of giving voice to new plays and playwrights. But this one needs some revision.
Shaw's "St. Joan" is still the best dramatic examination of the Inquisition at work. But then Joan of Arc wasn't an exotic Homeopathic Healer. So there's room on the shelf for another effort.
BAM Brings "Blue Heart" to Brooklyn:[Limited Engagement] After all these years, Caryl Churchill has decided to rediscover the Theatre of the Absurd. It is almost forty years since Eugene Ionesco—a Romanian living in France, mocking the banal and silly exercises in "Teach Yourself English" textbooks—gave the world such plays as "The Bald Soprano."
Caryl Churchill Reinvents Herself [****]
In "Heart's Desire," she is—like Ionesco—concerned with the banalities of common conversation. But she is also fascinated—possibly from watching too much TV—with unexpected permutations of a plot-line, unleashed on audiences with no dramaturgic preparation.
Mom, Dad, and Auntie are in a modern kitchen, anxiously awaiting the arrival from the airport of the daughter who went out to Australia years ago. This is her first visit home. Brian/Dad [Bernard Gallagher] comes in the door, putting on a sweater. Alice/Mom [June Watson] is setting the table. Masie/Auntie [Mary Macleod] is fidgeting.
They exchange a few banal phrases. The action stops and then begins all over again. This goes on endlessly, advancing gradually into later plot developments, including a drunken, jealous, wastrel son, Lewis [Pearce Quigley], complaining of his ill-treatment at home.
From time to time, quite unexpected events intrude on the hum-drum repetition of the plot. Masked Terrorists burst into the kitchen, brutally shooting the whole family. Masie opens a counter-cupboard for the gin, but a horde of wild children rush out from all the cupboards, running about the room.
The daughter's Lesbian chum [Alexandra Roberts] arrives in hiking gear. Or Susy herself [Sally Rogers] arrives. It all depends…
This play is essentially about the ruptured relationship of a Father and Daughter. "Blue Kettle," on the other hand, is about Mother-Son relationships. Both are strange and amusing—or strangely amusing—but they barely conceal heartbreak and catastrophe.
In the latter play, an old children's game is borrowed. In this, words such as "blue" and "kettle" are used as a kind of code to prevent outsiders/adults from understanding what is being said.
Its anti-hero, Derek [Quigley], is an unmarried non-entity of 40 years. He has a girlfriend [Rogers], but he seems less interested in her than in the succession of mothers he finds for himself.
He preys on women who have had to give up a son at birth, either because they were unmarried—or already married to someone not the father. He presents himself as the son they never knew, eager to get to know his real mother. In fact, his real mother also appears in this odd play—in a geriatric ward, where he confides his plot to fleece the other mothers to her.
Some are suspicious: of him, of his motives. Although he tells Enid—the restless girlfriend—that this may pay off for him, she rightly thinks it has become a compulsion for him. Not a hobby nor an effective Con Game.
Initially, the conversations are conventionally banal. But gradually "blue" or "kettle" slips into a sentence.
At first, this almost unnoticed. In the rhythm of the sentence, it's quite clear what is meant.
Near the close of the play, the two words crowd out almost all the rest, but the meaning—oddly enough—is still fairly clear. But at last, "blue" degenerates into "bl" or simply "b." As does "kettle." It sputters on as "ket ket ket," or "K K K."
"Ashes to Ashes"
Is Pinter-to-Pinter [***]
Lindsay Duncan is the best thing about the Roundabout's production of "Ashes to Ashes." She is herself beautiful in repose. And, as Rebecca, in Harold Pinter's mini-play, she's fascinating when recalling fragments of her past life.
Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn in Harold Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes at the Roundabout/Gramercy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This mysterious past—made all the more mysterious by Duncan's sphinx-like vagueness—involved an abusive lover and the loss of her baby in what may have been a round-up of Jewish citizens, bound for a concentration camp.
It could be that Rebecca is a generic representative of Abused Women and Victims of Genocides. Or she may be channeling their memories, filtered through the militant anger of the playwright.
In several interviews—which appeared before the play opened on East 23rd Street, at an old movie-house called the Gramercy Theatre—Pinter amply vented his outrage at the abuses heaped on innocent victims.
He is angered especially by governments which should know better. Both the U. S. and the U. K. have repeatedly violated human rights, in Pinter's view.
Because of his shame at Britain's behavior, he even refused the honor of a knighthood from John Major's government. Obviously, this honor was tendered as a recognition of Pinter's major achievement as a playwright, not to reward him for his frequent protests against injustice.
But he certainly would not have been made "Sir Harold" for the clarity of his dramatic narratives. Nor for their tautness, energy, pacing, and intellectual challenge.
For many audiences, the challenge is to decide who Pinter's characters are, where they are, why they are there, and what they are going on about.
In "Ashes to Ashes," David Strathairn, as the tweedy Devlin, is struggling to elicit understandable reponses and rational explanations of Rebecca's experiences with a sometime lover.
She is not very helpful but not especially obstructive either. This question-and-answer game provides the dramatic structure and emotional tension of the play in production.
It has been staged by Karel Reisz. But the next best thing about it—after the wonder that is Lindsay Duncan—is that it's only 45 minutes long.
Hyperactive & HystericalLee MacDougall's four-hander of foul-up wanna-be bank-robbers looks and sounds like a soon-to-be major motion-picture. Never mind that you've already seen films like this. Or that it has only four roles.
"High Life" at Primary Stages [****]
It can easily be "opened-up" to focus on every detail of the lives of the four losers who hope to make a killing by luring unsuspecting ATM repairmen to lead them to the loot.
The bait, hustler Billy [Matthew Mabe], gets killed with his own switchblade in the getaway car. Before the ATM men appear to repair a machine Billy has reported as malfunctioning. He gave a stolen $600 back to the teller, telling her the machine had spewed it out in error.
The real interest in this production at Primary Stages is the energy-levels generated by the cast. John Bedford Lloyd is Dick, almost manic as he describes his scheme to follow ATM repairmen into the room where the ATM cash must be stashed.
His initially unwilling partner in crime, Bug [Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.], is just out of prison and has no desire to return any time soon. But Dick is persuasive and soon enlists Billy and Donnie—who is terminally ill.
As played by David Greenspan, Donnie is also terminally hysterical. Shrill, almost falsetto hysteria is Greenspan's signature performance mode.
In some shows, notably those of his own authorship—playing his own mother in parody, for instance—his style can be wearing.
But in "High Life," it's the best thing about the production. If this performance weren't so over-the-top, it would qualify as one of the best Off-Broadway this season.
It may do so anyway. It is certainly one of the most unusual and riveting.
Musicals Old & New—
"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"Charles Schultz's balloon-headed comic character, Charlie Brown, is now half-a-century old. And the musical based on his comic-strip, "Peanuts," is over thirty.
Revived In Bold, Basic Colors [***]
But the current revival seems as bright and fresh as new paint. In fact, there is a lot of bright, bold, basic paint on David Gallo's charming comic-book settings.
Their very simplicity—visually echoing the lines and colors of Schultz's cartoons—prepares audiences unfamiliar with the original musical for elemental entertainments.
As a wryly philosophical Snoopy, Roger Bart is takes acting honors both in the animal and human categories. He is unquestionably the star of this new production.
His performance as a brave pilot—taking on the notorious Red Baron, with his old Sopwith Camel biplane—iss the highlight of the show. Designer Gallo rotates the skies so Snoopy's doghouse-plane seems to spiral through space.
Tony Award winner B. D. Wong seems sadly reduced in status: from M Butterfly to Linus. This underlines the difficulty talented Asian-American performers have in finding roles appropriate to their abilities.
The original show's Patty has been replaced by Sally [Kristin Chenoweth], Charlie Brown's younger sister. That she looks very much like Little Orphan Annie is not a plus.
As the champion deflater of male-egos, Ilana Levine's Lucy is a real castrator. Perhaps she is a bit old for an elementary-school role? Her off-hand put-downs seem less comical than really threatening.
As Schroeder, Stanley Wayne Mathis is ingratiating. Anthony Rapp's Charlie Brown is properly frustrated at every turn.
But there's always a danger in creating a stage-character who can't do anything right. And who is always being second-guessed or corrected by his peers.
This has worked wonderfully, week after week, as a cartoon running-gag. But for the "two hours traffic of our stage," this can create a vacuum at the heart of the action.
A useful fact-sheet notes that musical supervisor Andrew Lippa has contributed two new songs to Clark Gesner's original score. And this has itself been updated, with revisions in 7 of the original 14 songs.
Not only that! Of the original 42 sketches, 17 have been excised. And 21 new sketches have been added.
After 30 years, who would have noticed these changes? Surely not the pre-teen audience for whom this show seems designed.
This is a lively, colorful show which will surely appeal to younger audiences. Their parents, however, may be a trifle more world-weary and wise than their parents were three decades ago.
Michael Mayer staged the sketches and songs with elemental elegance.
The Asian-American Experience[Showcase Engagement] Prologue: In the late 1860s, it was OK for starving, freezing Chinese laborers to risk—and often lose—their lives, racing to complete the Central Pacific Railroad through the dangerous passes of the High Sierras.
Musically Relived in "Making Tracks" [****]
It was also OK for the survivors, or their children, to run Chinese Laundries in many a California valley or mountain town.
White California pioneers and their children were still laughing at Bret Harte's caricature, "The Heathen Chinee." So it was even admissible these heathens to join the Methodist Church!
What was not OK was to become prosperous running the local dry-goods store or grocery. That was widely, if silently, resented by many White Christian Americans. Methodists included.
In the years just before World War II, it was at last OK for a Chinese-American teen-ager to be the champion center on his high-school football team. What was not OK was to date the sisters of his Caucasian team-mates.
And, while it might be publicly praised, the winning of the Scholarship Award by either a Chinese or a Japanese student would be privately deplored.
Even today, the high percentage of Asian-American students enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley is cause for anger and alarm among some racist Caucasian conservatives.
One can still hear agitated old-timers shout: "They are taking over the West!"
This seems a holdover from the dark days of the so-called Alien Exclusion Act. The aliens, in this case, were not European immigrants, but Asians.
Some powerful California politicians wanted to prevent what they feared would be a Chinese and Japanese population explosion.
And, on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Government bombed Pearl Harbor, that was all West Coast racists needed to confirm their worst fears.
Taking their cue from President Franklin Roosevelt's phrase: "A day that will live in infamy," many demanded the removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from western areas.
General John L. DeWitt, Commander of the Sixth Army Area, rapidly ordered the confinement of immigrant and native Japanese in "Relocation Camps," where they remained until World War II was over.
Some of their Caucasian neighbors were quick to profit by this—buying cars, shops, and farms for next to nothing.
Singing the Story of a Harsh Past: In "Making Tracks," the varied experiences of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians who came to the West Coast from the Gold Rush onward are relived in bare narratives and often impressive songs.
The title refers to the laying of tracks through the Sierra Nevadas at breakneck speed, so the continent could be linked by rails in 1869. "Making Tracks" is also a powerful lyric in the show.
The framework is the attempt of a smart young second generation computer-programer to create a website chronicling and illustrating the travails of Asians arriving in America to create a new life. To find their fortunes on the "Golden Mountain."
She visits her aged Chinese grandmother in a New Jersey hospital, where this gracious old lady channels the memories of a number of immigrants. Japanese "picture-brides," for instance, often faced deep and irreversible disappointment.
The device works well enough, but it's not Broadway Bound. Welly Yang, whose concept this is, may want to consider other dramatic strategies to tell these engrossing stories.
[David Henry Hwang's "Dance and the Railroad" was a very special treatment of the Sierra track-laying experience. But it doesn't lend itself to the other stories here.]
With Yang, C. Matthew Eddy and Brian Yorkey share credit for the book, and for the lyrics as well. The score has been created by Woody Pak.
Many of the songs are memorable, especially as performed by the talented cast. Some even recall Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures."
Among the admirable lyrics are "Pearl River," "Picture Perfect," Voices of Angels," "Dance the World Away," and "Fly Away."
One of San Francisco's premiere night-spots in pre-war years and during the Second World War was the Forbidden City. This is the setting [in photo-projection] of a major and tragic element of the narrative.
A handsome Japanese youth is engaged as a Chinese Frank Sinatra. When the Relocation Order comes, he has to join his family on one of the concentration camps. And here he is shot to death by a guard while retrieving a ball.
"Making Tracks" has been workshopped at Pace Downtown and P:rinceton University. The two-week showcase in Manhattan at the Taipei Theatre has enjoyed sold-out houses.
This show can have a much longer run in New York, to a much wider audience, if it continues to develop. Producer Gladys Chen and Second Generation Productions are to be praised for bringing it this far along.
Considering the handsome productions the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has given Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" and the more recent and adventurous "Journey to the West," Berkeley Rep would seem an excellent venue for further development.
Perhaps B. D. Wong should be in this developing musical, when it finally reaches Off-Broadway in a fully-staged professional production. It would certainly offer him challenges more appropriate to his talents than "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
Black Vaudeville Revisited:Although a number of talented Black singers and dancers made it to Broadway, there were many more who toured in Black Vaudeville. They sang the Blues, strutted in style, and performed painfully corny comedy routines.
Time for "Rollin' on the T.O.B.A." [***]
This they did, often seven or eight times a day, in Black theatres on the T.O.B.A. Circuit. Their personalities and their specialties were largely unknown to white audiences.
The initials came to stand for "Tough on Black Asses," for the working conditions were often appalling. And the pay was pathetic, if the manager didn't actually cheat—or abscond with the box-office receipts.
Many of these theatres were in the South, often in cities which also had major touring theatres for Broadway shows—and for segregated audiences.
But the Black vaudevillians were not performing on those stages, so white audiences missed some of the most lively, spontaneous, and dynamic entertainers on the road.
"Rollin' on the T.O.B.A." turns back the performance-clock to 1931. The glowing Sandra Reaves-Phillips recreates the stage-magic of Bertha Mae Little, with full-throated renditions of W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and her own "Take Me As I Am."
Ronald "Smokey" Stevens partners Rudy Roberson as the song-and-dance team of Stevens and Stewart. They are both raffishly charming, even ingratiating, as they recreate some hoary vaudeville comedy routines.
Much is made of Stevens being the dancing-half of the duo, but Roberson is also deft in strutting his stuff. Stevens does both tap and soft-shoe with an affable air of "It's nothin', folks."
Some of the show material is from Miller & Lyles, from Bert Williams, and other luminaries.
But there are also interesting borrowings from the poetry and prose of Langston Hughes, such as "Toast to Harlem" and "Banquet in Honor." They don't quite fit into the vaudeville format, powerful though they are.
This is a small-scale show on a low budget. The props are every bit as seedy as they would have been Down South in 1931.
The men's weathered costumes suggest the effort it took to look well-dressed when constantly traveling and assigned dressing-rooms almost as bad as the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Only Bertha Mae, as a headliner, is allowed a variety of handsome and glittery gowns to complement her ample person and her powerful personality.
This is not a tightly-paced, high-energy, grab-you-by-your-lapels Off-Broadway musical revue. It's not like that high-powered evocation of life on the T.O.B.A. circuit staged seasons ago at the Village Gate.
Instead, it has a friendly, almost sneaky, charm about it. It may take some audiences a while to warm up to the old chestnuts passed off as jokes, but this talented trio is sure to win them over.
Also charming is the piano-man, David Alan Bunn. He can even hit the high notes with the heel of his right shoe!
In an even more theatrical framework, the sketches and songs could capture the imaginations of younger audiences who don't even know what Vaudeville was.
Ralph Allen gave Broadway "Sugar Babies," based on his own extensive collections of Burlesque comedy sketches. It was a long-running hit on the Great White Way and toured endlessly.
Allen also assembled a similar show, based on Black vaudeville routines, but it has yet to have a major production. The current revue suggests that there is certainly a public for such entertainments, even today.
Fun with the Wooster Group:This will surely be the Avant-garde Production of Choice this spring. "HOUSE/LIGHTS" is in an open-ended run down on Wooster Street. And it is certain to be favorite on the European festival circuit.
Faust, Stein, and Olga Animate "HOUSE/LIGHTS" [****]
It is far more bizarre, imaginative, innovative, and suggestive than Richard Foreman's current "Hotel Paradise." It has a crazy kind of visual and metaphoric logic not to be found in a Foreman production.
Of course, Foreman has to depend on his own imaginings, rather than those of Gertrude Stein—and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. It may well be that—for Foreman—there's no there there, to borrow from Stein.
Still, he did write and direct for the Wooster Group. "Symphony of Rats" dates from 1988.
Gertruden Stein's curious drama, "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," has been strangely blended with a modestly suggestive black & white film of 1964, "Olga's House of Shame."
Actually, there are several film clips used to unusual advantage in this multi-media collage. Snatches of Busby Berkeley dance sequences, a radiant Esther Williams, and other movie-memorabilia provide backgrounds for the frantic antics of Faustus, Mephistopheles, Olga, and other fugitives from Stein's text and Joseph Mawra's very soft-core Olga porn.
With all the smashing and dashing about in the confined stage-space, parallel with the audience, it's a wonder someone doesn't get hurt. Of course the characters are already spiritually and morally damaged.
Kate Valk is dynamic both as Faustus and as Olga's disciple, Elaine. Her on-camera dialogue with a viper—smart-talking by John Collins—is a comic highlight.
The ingenious mixture of live performance, videotaped and imposed on film projections, is haunting and provocative. Philip Bussman gets credit for this.
Suzzy Roche is sassily malevolent as both the horned Mephisto and the Dominatrix Olga.
Roy Faudree and Ari Fliakos fling themselves—and their lines—about with great force and precision.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte shows herself an apt master of the comedic, the parodic, the metaphoric, and the visually suggestive. Jennifer Tipton's surprising lighting and Jim Findlay's structural unit-set greatly assist. The skeletal set recalls the metallic machine the Wooster Group used for their production of O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape."
Richard Foreman, Eat Your Heart Out!
If you want to be more familiar with Gertrude Stein's text for "Doctor Faustus," you should read it. You won't glean much about its mythic innovations from this show.
You may realize—thanks to four immense light bulbs on swinging rods overhead—that Faustus discovered Electricity. And that his transformation from aged prof to blooming youth was a mistake.
His beloved Marguerite liked him better older. Oh well.
If you can't find a copy of Stein's play, your best shot is Michael Feingold's essay, "Current Affairs," in a recent issue of the "Village Voice." Feingold finds more gold in Stein than may be buried in her text, but his critique is both informative and provocative.
For those who have not yet read Stein's major works—watch out for "Samantha"—it is perhaps enough to note that she brought the same bizarre verbal and structural sensibility to the theatre as to the novel.
It is more thanks to composer Virgil Thomson, than to Stein's texts, that "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All" are so interesting in performance.
From the Wooster Group's program, here is a snippet of a Stein quote:
"Your sensation as one in the audience in relation to the play played before you your sensation I say your emotion concerning that play is always either behind or ahead of the play at which you are looking and to which your are listening. So your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play."
Well now, that is really something to think about, when you come to think of it!
Athol Fugard Remembers:
The "Captain's Tiger"
Writes His First Book on a Tramp Freighter [****]
In his seniority, Athol Fugard—South Africa's noted playwright of Anti-Apartheid— looks like a feisty little guy, with a lot of fight still left in him.
Felicity Jones and Athol Fugard in his "Memoir for the Stage," titled "The Captain's Tiger." Photo: John Johnson.
In this "Memoir for the Stage," now on view at Manhattan Theatre Club, he stages and plays himself as a young man just out of his teens. He is the captain's factotum on a rusty old tramp freighter.
His narrative device is writing letters home to his beloved mother about his experiences on board—if not in port. He is also trying to write his first book, a tribute to his mother, re-imagined as a lovely young woman.
This fictional character [Felicity Jones] actually appears to argue with him about the way she is being depicted and deployed.
Tony Todd also appears as Donkeyman, an unlettered African deckhand, whom Fugard enlists to help him write his book. His developing friendship and Donkeyman's trust and admiration suggest that this must have been a most important beginning in Fugard's gradual understanding of the social dangers in the gaps between white and black South Africans.
Initially, I found the device of the other characters too schematic. But, thanks both to the actors themselves and to Fugard's sensitivity toward these people, this dramaturgy finally seemed very effective.
Even though Fugard at first appeared a bit too arch, too stagey in presenting himself as his central character, he soon overcame this effect with his depth of feeling and sincerity.
At the close, his love and empathy for his mother and father—both of whom apparently had deeply dissatisfying lives—was beautiful to behold.
"Street of Dreams"With two Tony Awards for his outstanding work in Broadway musicals, James Naughton doesn't have to be diffident about his dream of singing songs he loves solo in his very own show.
James Naughton at the Promenade [****]
And yet, at the Promenade Theatre, he is almost boyishly modest about his talents, letting the songs speak for themselves. In fact, he is charmingly insistent in giving credit to both composers and lyricists. Especially those who aren't well known—or well remembered.
Naughton's Tonys were won not only for his musical savvy on stage, but also for his engaging abilities as an actor. Anyone who saw him in "Chicago" or "City of Angels" knows what an amazing talent he has.
His choice of song-styles—and unusual lyrics—is wide-ranging. There are wonderful Golden Oldies by Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael.
And some more surprising songs as well. It's a treat to hear Naughton rattle off a tongue-twisting list of American destinations—increasing in speed to the point of melt-down.
Even the most banal of love-lyrics are vocally caressed by Naughton. Worlds of emotion and longing are suggested by as simple a phrase as "I love you."
It's also refreshing to hear a "You're the pits" parody of Cole Porter's original list of superlative "Tops."
Dressed in blue shirt and black jeans, Naughton could have just come in from raking the autumn leaves. He immediately established a person-to-person rapport with the entire audience. Including the person whose hearing-aids were whistling.
Comparing his time in Los Angeles—working in films and TV—with living and working in New York, Naughton makes his New England preferences amusingly, tenderly clear.
Naughton's show-business anecdotes are often hilarious. They are the "olio" between some of the songs.
He tells them so engagingly, it's too bad there aren't more of them. But that would mean fewer songs.
Although the show runs almost two hours without intermission, it was obvious the audience couldn't get enough of Naughton's song-stylings. He obliged with two encores.
Naughton is strongly, amiably, supported by a five-man jazz combo. It is led by his resourceful musical director, John Oddo.
All the musicians seem very much in synch with Naughton—as he is with them. And each man gets his moment in the spotlight with a solo riff.
In addition to Oddo, there are Dave Pietro, Jay Azzolino, Steve Laspina, and Ray Marchica. They all seem to be having a great time making music together.
For Naughton, performing at the Promenade is like a home-coming. He made his New York acting debut here in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
Playing opposite Robert Ryan and Geraldine Fitzgerald, he had formidable—but greatly supportive—talents to work with. And he won a handful of awards for his acting in this American masterpiece.
In the current show, Naughton's modesty, charm, wit, and friendliness—as well as his considerable abilities as an interpreter of music and lyrics—win him thundering, admiring applause.
This is a show which should have a very long run, as more and more people have the opportunity to get to know James Naughton as the guy next door. As well as a no-airs Broadway star who really can sing—and also tell a tall story with flair.
Way Out West—
Another Volume of "Collected Stories"Only one week after seeing Uta Hagen as writer-mentor Ruth Steiner in Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories," I had the opportunity to see this provocative play again. Hagen is currently appearing in the drama at the Lucile Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
At Berkeley Repertory Theatre [***]
Across America, there is another production now on view at the Berkeley Repertory. After the experience of Uta Hagen's Steiner, I wasn't at all certain I'd want to see lesser talents perform this show.
In the event, the Bay Area production was not as powerful nor as convincing as that in New York. Suppressing spontaneous comparisons with Hagen, I did find Cristine McMurdo-Wallis capable in the role. If not dynamic or charismatic, as Hagen is.
Berkeley's Ruth Steiner, however, suffers from director Richard Seyd's vision of her as a fusty old maid, with pencils rammed into her old-fashioned face-framing roll of hair.
Although the program suggests the time as 1990, with this Gypsy-Lady get-up, it could be Berkeley only slightly after Isadora Duncan left for Paris. Her outfits and hair-stylings do improve rapidly as the play progresses. She seems to have covered four decades of fashion.
Jennifer Tighe, as Lisa Morrison, the over-eager authorial acolyte, undergoes a fashion revolution in the space of eight years as well. She also swiftly changes from awkward to smooth to subtle to subversive.
Her performance is more persuasive than that at the Lortel. Initially, she is shy, nervous, tentative. Her self-confidence seems to grow naturally. In Manhattan, Lisa is a hyper-kinetic dynamo, barely held in check in the early scenes.
As for designer J. B. Wilson's idea of a Greenwich Village apartment, it seemed framed in typical Berkeley California Redwood. UC/Berkeley Poet-Professor Josephine Miles could have lived here. And she could be tougher than Ruth Steiner.
Of course, there were no great surprises in the performances. Or in the plot, which I had already seen unfolded twice, initially at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
What impressed me, however, was how Margulies' development of his characters and theme continues to hold attention. And how it continues to provoke discussion about authors' borrowing, appropriating, or stealing other authors' personal narratives.
Some local critics were not so admiring. They had read, heard, or seen it all before.
Margulies had given them nothing new. Even the characters and the dialogue seemed shop-worn.
It's true that this is a literary version of "All About Eve." But re-using a powerful Basic Plot is no crime.
Shakespeare, for one, was a master of dramatic themes and variations. Margulies is no Bard, nor Marlowe, but he is an able dramatist.
Given the paucity of good theatre in the San Francisco-Bay Area, it's surprising this play and production were not more warmly welcomed.
San Francisco's Dynamic David DowerHow about a grant of $100,000 to workshop 12 new theatre-pieces over the next two years? Is that great—or what?
And His Plans for the Z Space Studio
What's even more astonishing than the size of this grant—for a 50-seat performance space—is that it comes from Grants for the Arts, a City of San Francisco initiative. New York City's Cultural Commission should take notice!
And there are other impressive donations as well. One from the Berg Family Foundation of Santa Cruz frees the Z Studio's charming and dynamic impressario, David Dower, from slaving away at computer programming.
A Bay Area theatre-designer had invited me to Z to see a workshop staging of a new musical, based on Alice Waters' book about her daughter Fanny and her nouvelle California cuisine restaurant, Chez Panisse.
The show is called "Fanny at Chez Panisse."
You may remember the original Fanny? She was the Gallic heroine of those Marcel Pagnol movies. She was also transformed into a Broadway musical, "Fanny."
And this show, in turn, became a Technicolor Cinerama movie-musical. The joke then current was: "Who wants to see Josh Logan's fanny on a wide-screen?"
Joe Landon—whose words and music animate the current Fanny Incarnation—has had his work performed at the Manhattan Theatre Club and San Francisco's ACT and Magic Theatre.
David Dower's plan is to use the grant money to give Bay Area creative and performing artists an outlet for their visions and talents.
Glancing through the Z Commission prospectus, I was astounded to realize I'd just seen two shows from the Z Studio in New York!
One was Josh Kornbluth's wonderful "Ben Franklin Unplugged," which Dower directed and helped him shape. This has been on view at PS 122 and is sure to travel widely here and abroad.
Amy Freed's "Freedomland," recently produced at Playwrights Horizons, began as a Z Studio play-reading.
Two shows in Manhattan in two months! If New York production is the measure of all things theatrical, then Dower and the Z Studio deserve attention.
Why the Z? All this got started at the Zuni Cafe in 1987. The bartenders and waiters formed the Zuni Collective.
Dower describes the first event: "The employee/artists of the restaurant took over the joint. The walls of the restaurant were hung with paintings by waiters and chefs, sculptures perched on every surface. Three bands played; a torch singer lit 'em up at the piano in the bar. A waiter's award-winning film screened upstairs."
The next event was staged in an old concrete coastal-defense bunker on Baker Beach. Z was on the move!
Dower, until recently, was earning his living devising academic & arts management computer programs for Avelino Associates.
In effect, Avelino now subsidizes the Z Studio and its varied programs with $70,000 of space and facilities. Michael Palladino, Avelino's chief, is a great admirer of the arts and Z's Guardian Angel.
Both the computer-programming enterprise and the performing arts spaces and technologies share the same floor. Where once artists waited on tables, now they help faculties and schools plan their programs on Avelino computers.
Z Studio also shares shows and development with such groups as Woolly Mammoth, Word for Word, Magic Theatre, and Pan-Asian Repertory.
Coming up: "Did Anyone Ever Tell You You Look Like Huey P. Newton?," "Animal Acts," "Brothers and Keepers," and "The People's Violin." This last piece is the creation of Charlie Varon. His "Rush Limbaugh in Night School" was a big counter-culture hit in New York at PS 122.
The Z Space Studio is located on the Third Floor at 1360 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. For more information: Phone: 415-437-6775. Web: www.zspace.org [Loney]
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