Thursday, August 15, 2019

Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! Seismically Shake Broadway

Our summertime boat is frequently home base for some NYC theatre, this time only two shows but what a change of pace from many of those we’ve seen in summers past.  One would think Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! would be “traditional” musicals but they felt as “revolutionary” as Hamilton was when we saw that when it originally opened.  Hearing so much about these two shows, some negativity from a critic we highly respect, we were determined to experience these with a tabula rasa mentality. 

We’re glad we did.  Had we approached these with our built in biases, ones that are due to our age and previous theatre experiences, there would be a lot that we could seize upon for criticism.  First and foremost as traditionalists, if we had to see Oklahoma! over and over again, we would choose the movie version with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones which comes much closer to the previous stage versions we’ve seen.  And as far as Moulin Rouge! is concerned, the pastiche of seventy or so songs is not of our generation for the most part, except for “Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend” and “Nature Boy.”  The songs of younger generations predominate, but the swatches of them are seamlessly woven into the production, picking out the right lyrics and musical riff for the moment, so that they move the production right along. 

We found ourselves enjoying them in spite of our ingrained aversion to ultra contemporary music.  Our son and daughter-in-law sat in the row in front of us, their heads bobbing along to the music with which they’re totally familiar, which enhanced our enjoyment as well.

Moulin Rouge! is intended as an over the top extravaganza, another criticism which could be leveled at it from the vantage of the highbrow.  It is that, especially sitting in the third row as we were fortunate enough to be.  It is a love story as anyone familiar with the movie or La Boheme knows, but the dazzling staging and sensuality trump the love story.  Or, one could consider it the strength of this production, one that shares some aspects of Cirque du Soleil, replete with the female lead, Satine, gloriously played by Karen Olivo, descending from the ceiling of the Al Hirschfield Theatre.  It is the type of gimmickry we would normally decry but in the context of this musical, it works, as do the songs and the erotic nature of the presentation, the costumes and the movement on the stage.  Only a great Broadway company could pull this off.

Satine’s love interest, Christian, played by Aaron Tveit, is yet another star in the diamond of a cast as is Tam Mutu playing Christian’s adversary, The Duke of Monroth.  Danny Burstein plays the MC Harold Zidler, reminiscent of the demonic MC of Cabaret.  The ensemble is sexy and vibrant.  The chorography of moving all these players around ramps, and platforms stage left and right is breathtaking.  When we saw Hamilton, now years ago, we knew we were seeing something for the ages.  In its own way Moulin Rouge! will be that memorable.  

This brings me to the show we saw the following day, Oklahoma!  Last April we saw Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, interviewed at Dramaworks’ “Dramalogue – Talking Theatre!”  Much of the discussion was about the decision making process that went into his giving the green light to this ‘dark-side-of-the-moon’ version of this fabled musical.  Clearly, had there been no Hamilton, perhaps this adaptation would never have been approved.  It is indeed reimagined, taking such an innocent story ( albeit with a sinister side) and turns it topsy-turvey; utterly stripped down to its essentials.

You know the second you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre, Winchester Rifles decorating the walls, a brightly lit stage made up of picnic benches and plywood floors, a small area for an equally small on stage orchestra, multicolored metallic fringe hanging from the ceiling, crock pots lining bench tables on stage left and right at which some audience members are sitting that the goal is to involve the audience members in a very contemporary rendering.  This isn’t why the farmer and the cowmen can’t be friends.  The essence of this production is Laurey having to choose between Curley and Jud Fry.  Yes, having to choose!  In all versions we have ever seen, this choice was made for us right at the burst of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”  It’s Curley, hands down.

While Jud is clearly a loner in those early days when Oklahoma was emerging from a small territory to statehood, today our Jud would be one of the 21st century misfits who ‘merely’ needs understanding to bring him into “society.”  So, in this adaptation Laurey, heavenly played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, is attracted to the brooding quiet Jud.  She actually waivers in her choice!

When we sat down and opened our Playbill, we were disappointed to learn that Curley, the male lead, usually played by Damon Daunno, was to be played by his understudy Denver Milord.  He more than rose to the occasion as not only did he exude that sexy American as apple pie good looks but he could belt out his songs with his guitar, finally winning over Laurey.  But Laurey’s infatuation with Jud is a hurdle for him, constantly perplexing and the end of the play is something unexpected.  It is a road we have seen walked so many times in contemporary society, quick to judgment to exonerate the “good guy,” which, as the last moving refrains of “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” ring out, leaves one bewildered.

Everything in the production is atypical, including the audience being served some delicious chili and cornbread during the intermission.  The cast is small but the essential story lines are there, Will Parker played with wide-eyed innocence and gullibility by James Davis, declaring his love for Ado Annie, played by the exceptionally talented Ali Stroker with such hilarity and an ethereal voice that one hardly notices she is wheel chair bound, another hat tip to contemporary society.  ‘Ole Aunt Eller played by Mary Testa is the peacekeeper and Will Brill plays the flirtatious Ali Hakim, the peddler who will take what he can from Ado Annie as long as it doesn’t involve marriage.  Jud Fry is quietly, but achingly played by Patrick Vail.  He originated the role of Jud while a student at Bard College.

Most emblematic of the departure of this Oklahoma! from the original is the dream ballet.  The original, choreographed by Agnes DeMille is ethereal.  Now it is one of boldness, parts of it performed in darkness, music dissonant and other parts filmed in real time as cinema verite and projected on the rear wall.  Its vivid content was brilliantly translated by anther understudy in this particular production, Coral Dolphin, whose physicality, including cartwheels, took precedence over ballet.  It is a modern dance of the 21st century.

In fact, that is what we came away with after these two groundbreaking musicals.  These are our times, brutish and violent, frequently unfair, sometimes steeped in narcissism and eroticism, a kind of dystopian landscape captured by the remake of one of our most innocent musicals, and a movie brought to stage.  But bravo to both as art marks the way and records our moment in time.

Friday, August 9, 2019

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley is an American 20th Century Classic

My good friend, a fellow boater and a terrific actor, James Andreassi, turned me on to this book, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley.  Jim knows my love of American literature and as we are both NY Yankee fans, we also naturally share an interest in the NY Giant football team.  Back in my college days I used to go to Yankee Stadium to see YA Tittle and Frank Gifford star in the NFL in the early 1960s.

I think Jim was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with this book but now I understand why: you won’t find it on those lists of important American novels of the 20th century.  It ought to be.  It’s an under-the-radar American classic.  I felt the same way when I read Stoner by John Williams and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

Not that Exley’s work shares a similar writing style but its importance to the canon of American literature cannot be underestimated.  It certainly does not deserve its general anonymity. Its acclaim now depends on keepers of the flame (of which I am now one).

Exley describes his work as a “fictional memoir” and I sometimes wonder whether, when it comes down to it, other great pieces of writing should be similarly described.  But Exley puts it right out there with self-deprecation and hilarity equally balancing the forces of life that tear away at him.  No doubt he had ridden life hard and in turn was ridden, roaming between cities, women, bars and mental institutions.  These experiences permeate the novel, making it almost a documentary of the beat 50s and the turbulent 60s, and an astute commentary on the chimerical American dream.

Because of his bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, the novel similarly drifts in and out of consciousness, but even at its less lucid moments captures one’s attention.  His writing process is best described by himself in the novel.  He goes back and forth to “Avalon Valley” a mental institution where he finally begins to put pen to paper: “… what I was doing at Avalon Valley has begun to haunt me, and taking a deep breath, I started fearfully into the past in search of answers. In many ways that book was this book, which I wasn’t then ready to write. Without a thought of organization I wrote vignettes and 30 page paragraphs about anything and everything I could remember. There are times now when, in nostalgia, I tell myself I’ll never again put down the things I did then, but I know I’m only confusing quantity with quality. If nothing else, I wrote a great deal during those months, writing rapidly, furiously, exultantly, heart-sinkingly, and a manuscript of whatever merit began, page upon page, filling up the suitcase at the foot of my iron cot.”

Indeed, there are resemblances between that “book” and this one, particularly the observation about vignettes, as he goes from one subject, a bar, a person, a city, to another.  His character descriptions in particular are superlative, alive in every way.  Sometimes in tone, I think of Frederick as a mature Holden Caulfield gone berserk.  In fact there are several references to Caulfield in the book and the two characters certainly share a cynical view of the world.  There are hints of Amory Blaine from Fitzgerald’s first novel The Far Side of Paradise (in Exley’s more lyrical, optimistic moments) but also a reminder of the admonition from Fitzgerald’s Crack Up: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down ...."

One would think by the title that this is a sports book and it is as far as it serves as a metaphor.  In this regard it reminds me of the English novelist David Storey’s early 1960 novel, This Sporting Life, made into a movie starring Richard Harris, his first major screen role.  I reviewed that for my college newspaper at the time, saying “The challenge of the rugby game is juxtaposed to the challenge of life. Frank accepts both and deals with them in the only manner he knows how: using brute force. Although a vigorous, powerful, and relentless symbol of strength throughout the film, he is unable to dominate life entirely.”

That juxtaposition of sport to life is evident here as well, but unlike the main character of This Sporting Life, Fred’s sporting life is that of a fan, in particular, of Frank Gifford of the New York Giants.  He first comes across Frank when he’s in college at USC and naturally, Frank is playing for his college team and he is the Big Man on Campus, and is spoken of in reverential tones.  Unknown to Fred, it is Frank’s girl he spots on campus, his knees buckling at her beauty, never to be his though as he is “not in the game.”  It is just the beginning of his realizing that his life, no matter how far he stretches for the golden ring, will never attain the heights enjoyed by our sports heroes such as Frank Gifford.  Exley’s description of Frank’s girl when he first sees her on campus as well as his first roommate at college is testimony to Exley’s descriptive powers:

“I saw her first on one stunning spring day when the smog had momentarily lifted, and all the world seemed hard bright blue and green. She came across the campus straight at me, and though I had her in the range of my vision for perhaps a hundred feet, I was only able, for the fury of my heart, to give her five or six frantic glances. She had the kind of comeliness -- soft, shoulder-length chestnut hair; a sharp beauty mark right at her sensual mouth; and a figure that was like a swift, unexpected blow to the diaphragm-that to linger on makes the beholder feel obscene. I wanted to look. I couldn't look. I had to look. I could give her only the most gaspingly quick glances. Then she was by me. Waiting as long as I dared, I turned and she was gone.

“From that day forward I moved about the campus in a kind of vertigo, with my right eye watching the sidewalk come up to meet my anxious feet, and my left eye clacking in a wild orbit, all over and around its socket, trying to take in the entire campus in frantic split seconds, terrified that I might miss her. On the same day that I found out who she was I saw her again. I was standing in front of Founders' Hall talking with T., a gleaming-toothed, hand-pumping fraternity man with whom I had, my first semester out there, shared a room. We had since gone our separate ways; but whenever we met we always passed the time, being bound together by the contempt with which we viewed each other's world and by the sorrow we felt at really rather liking each other, a condition T. found more difficult to forgive in himself than I did.”

Fred’s father, Earl, was a football star in school and between his expectations and those fostered on him by society he seemed condemned to live a life of failure, especially trying to attain vestiges of the American Dream such as finding the girl next door.  He thinks he’s found her, when he meets Bunny Sue, who “had honey-blonde, bobbed hair and candid, near-insolent green eyes. She had a snub, delightful nose, a cool, regal, and tapering neck, a fine intelligent mouth, that covered teeth so startling they might have been cleansed by sun gods....she was so very American. She was the Big Ten coed whose completeness is such that a bead of perspiration at the temple is enough to break the heart.”

She is so, so perfect, though; he is totally impotent trying to make love to her.  She lives a placid life in the suburbs where her father boasts the tallest TV antenna in the area to bring in far away stations.  Is this to be his life too?  No, he was to be condemned again, and again, becoming a vicious alcoholic, coming home to his mother and step father when he could no longer function, and then, ultimately being sent back to Avalon for treatment.  He was a “repeater,” the underbelly of the American dream:

“These repeaters were the ugly, the broken, the carrion. They had crossed eyes and bug eyes and cavernous eyes. They had club feet or twisted limbs — sometimes no limbs. These people were grotesques. On noticing this, I thought I understood: there was in mid century America no place for them. America was drunk on physical comeliness. America was on a diet. America did its exercises. America, indeed brought a spirituality to its dedication to pink-cheeked straight-legged, clear-eyed health-exuding attractiveness -- a fierce strident dedication....To what, I asked myself, was America coming? To no more it seemed to me, than the carmine-hued, ever-sober ‘young marrieds’ in the Schlitz beer sign.”

The process of his returning to a modicum of sanity brings the novel back to the sports metaphor.  Constantly in bar rooms or street fights, he emerges from one such fight with bruises as well as an epiphany, one perhaps delayed too long in the novel, and in his life, but climatic nonetheless:

“In a moment I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I feel quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge causes me to weep very quietly calmly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and I could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny – unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”

He becomes an Englsih teacher and is able to express empathy: “…having attempted merely to dazzle the kids with the Bard’s poetry, with ever so much scholarly caution and hemming and hawing, I was one day starting back through the text elaborating this theory when a point eluded me, I looked up and off into the class, and my eyes came to rest on a girl who was smiling and weeping simultaneously. A stunningly salubrious and tall maiden with glittering teeth, brilliant blue eyes, and a wondrous complexion, the smile was with her a perennial characteristic – though it was not in the least insinuative or licentious. If a teacher is in the least a man, he soon comes to imagine that his female trusts spend half their nocturnal hours masturbating to his summarily called up and glamorized image; her smile had never seem to have that kind. An abstract of guileless amiability, as though her heart were large and airy and glad, hers, rather, had always seem the smile of an innocent as yet unprepared to determine what should  penetrate that heart. A poor student, her countenance exuded remarkable intelligence; both her modish dress and fine carriage intimated ‘background’; when she finally surmised what I demanded by way of examination answers, I had thought her grades would improve. Above the smile on this day, above the lovely Grecian nose and vigorous colored cheeks were two great lipid pools of astonishingly blue tears. My first impression was that it was her time of the month, my first impulse to hurry her discreetly to the girls’ room. With an alarming suddenness, though, and accompanied immediately by an almost feverish remorse, the blood rushed to my face, I turned away from her, and my eyes fled back to the text: she was frightened to death of me.”

Yes, Exley was hung up on masculinity and is even misogynistic at times, with clearly suicidal tendencies in his compulsion to drink.  Yes, he will never measure up to his father or Frank Gifford in sports. But merely recognizing that his student “was frightened to death of me,” is a far cry from where he began.   Every step of the way, his writing, although sometimes disjointed, is lyrical, even magical at times, clearly a novel to be included in the canon of important literature of a unique American era.  And ironically, over time, this one work will endure while his father’s sports accomplishments have been forgotten and Gifford’s will merely be impressive statistics one can Google.  Sadly, Exley produced very little after this titanic novel but it is enough for one to take serious note of A Fan’s Notes. 
Two fans at a minor league baseball game, Bob and Jim

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Hershey Felder BECOMES Irving Berlin in this One Man Tour de Force

The final performance at the Westport Country Playhouse of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” was last night and we were lucky enough to be there.  It was a poignant and persuasive reminder that this nation is a nation of immigrants.   

It took a Jewish immigrant from Russia to write such classics as “God bless America “and “White Christmas” two of the top selling pieces of music of all time.

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life having written not only the Book for this production, but he acts, sings, and as an accomplished concert pianist, accompanies himself.  It is a one man theatrical triumph with a beautiful set (a representation of Berlin's New York City Beekman Place apartment) and lighting by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve attended performances for more than 40 years during the summers..

In addition to those two classics previously mentioned, Felder’s bio-musical tells Berlin’s story in a score of songs, including “Alexander's Ragtime Band",” My Wife's Gone to the Country - Hooray! Hooray!” (Seriously, Berlin could make up a song just about anything and Felder engages the audience with this one, allowing us to sing the “Hooray! Horray! refrain), ”Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Say It Isn’t So”,”Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “Supper Time” (a song about racial violence, sung by Ethel Waters) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from one of his most memorable and enduring Broadway hit musicals, Annie Get Your Gun (which he was enlisted to write at the last moment by the Gershwin Brothers as the intended composer, Jerome Kern, had died).  Incidentally, Felder does a great Ethel Merman imitation!

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life in chronological order starting with his birth somewhere in the Russian empire, his family’s escape from the Russian pogroms and their arrival at Ellis Island when was only five years old, and his beginnings in music as a singing waiter.   

He had two marriages, his first wife dying soon after their marriage, and his second from one of the wealthiest families in America -- a marriage to which her family of course strongly objected.  He lost his only son in his infancy and had three daughters.  These facts are woven into the incredible musical accomplishments of his life.   

The evening is further enhanced thanks to the astute direction of Trevor Hay who cleverly embeds scenes from movies, still photographs and other emotionally relevant images and sounds on a large “mirror” and wall behind Felder.

But foremost is Felder’s spirited and talented portrayal of Berlin – in song, in piano performance, and acting, capturing the essence of the man and an era, underscoring the importance of Berlin to the Great American Songbook.  Indeed, as Jerome Kern said “he IS American music.”

Remarkably, his composition and performance abilities were all self-taught.  He wrote all his songs in F Sharp and they had to be transposed for most performances.  It is a most unlikely story, the immigrant songwriter who couldn’t read music and ultimately wrote some of the most iconic American songs.  Felder’s story emphasizes his contributions to both the WW I and WW II war efforts.  Simply put, he loved America!  

Berlin’s times, of course, had its own societal afflictions and horrors, and except for a few brief moments here and there, referring to the depression, and racial segregation and prejudice, and a little about anti-Semitism from his father in law, Felder mostly avoids those issues.  But this is meant to be more of a “feel good” bio-musical, and the author/performer sticks to his mission.

Felder’s ability to tell this story as an integrated musical performance has, I think, matured over the years.  About 15 years ago we saw him perform his first bio-musical Gershwin Alone at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach which ironically has now been transformed into the home that Dramaworks now occupies.  We loved that show as well, but I recall it was not so much a biographically integrated theatre piece as this one of Berlin as it was more reliant on Felder’s considerable talent as a concert pianist.  His Irving Berlin show tells the life story seamlessly through his acting, singing, and playing.  In other words, it meets the test of the modern Broadway musical although only one person, but, oh, what a remarkably talented person he is.

The thousands of songs Berlin wrote during his long career, which included more than a score of Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals tapped into feelings and tunes that appealed to his generation and succeeding ones, and Felder frequently engages the audience to sing along.  As he said after the show in a casual Q & A, there are basically three players in his piece, he, the piano and the audience.

After more than 1-1/2 hours without intermission and a standing ovation, he still had the enthusiasm and energy to spend another half hour with the audience amusingly fielding questions.  It was like talking to your best friend, but one with exceptional gifts.

We look forward to his future works, including a new play featuring the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Sign us up!

And so after such a satisfying evening we followed the winding roads of Westport back to our boat as a thunderstorm was gathering in the west.  Luckily, we beat it “home.”