Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Sunday in the Park with George"


Sunday in the Park with George
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)



John Bambery as George
“Order.”
“Design.”
“Tension.”
“Composition.”
“Balance.”
“Light.”

As each word is announced by the artist whose science of painting is guided by these exacting principles, the members of his most famous composition move into place, aided by his adjustments as needed to get just the right placement of head, hem, or parasol.  And then when he finally he says, “Harmony,” Stephen Sondheim’s glorious “Sunday” sounds forth as a magnetic set of waves that draws us quietly toward an eventual climax of beautifully blended voices in a suddenly arresting volume,
“People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday.”

The Cast of Sunday in the Park with George
For me, no matter how many times I see this incredibly moving sequence, I cannot hold back the tears streaming down my cheek.  The creation of art that occurs in front of our eyes in Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) Sunday in the Park with George is unmatched in any other play or musical (in my opinion).  Under the inspired direction of Bill English where loving strokes of genius abound, the current, visually awakening production at San Francisco Playhouse does not disappoint as George Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, becomes three-dimensional reality in each act’s emotional and harmonious conclusion.

George-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was a post-Impressionist painter, famous today as the creator of the pointillist technique of painting where hundreds of thousands of multi-colored dots blend at a distance into a picture full of rich hues, light, and shadows.  During his too-short lifetime, he was largely shunned by the established art community and never had a major exhibit.

The near-maniacal approach to his dotted painting, the adherence to a non-stop work ethic that precluded much time away from his sketchbook or canvas, and the obsession for perfection that meant minute attention to every detail of a model’s being are all magnificently captured in the music and lyrics by Sondheim in a song like “Color and Light.”  As George stabs his brush as if piercing the canvas with a sharp tool, he sings in rapid progression, “More red, a little more red, blue, blue, blue, blue ... There’s only color and light, yellow and white.” 

John Bambery & Nanci Zoppi
John Bambery captures George’s fanatically determined approach to art and life as he both sketches on the shores of the river or as he works from a ladder on the massive canvas in his darkened studio.  Taking strong jabs on an imaginary canvas between him and us as audience, he sings with a voice crisp, clear, and convincing of his character’s compulsive nature.  He clips off the Sondheim rush of lyrics with ease and yet with purpose, digging into the notes zeal and intensity with a voice that can both belt and whisper with the same rich array of tones. 

When George is sketching on a Sunday in the park amongst a bevy of lovers, soldiers, strollers, and even his mother and her nurse that will eventually make it onto his completed canvas, he at one point becomes two lazing dogs (Spot and Fifi) who yap and yep, ruff and gruff together about their Sunday adventures and woes.  John Bambery delights us with his puppy antics and his duo ventures into falsetto squeaks and basso wallows. 

Later in his studio, his intensity of voice and manner only increase with wonderful vocal gymnastics that speak of satisfied victory as he delivers “Finishing the Hat” (“Look, I made a hat ... where there never was a hat”).  Continuously, Mr. Bambery is a George Seurat that we can believe he is actually that now-icon of the art world who largely ignored the rest of his life in order to create art unlike any that had ever been created before.

John Bambery & Nanci Zoppi
And in doing so, George loses Dot, the woman who adores him even as she dislikes the hours of modeling in the hot sun in her black, bustle dress.  Nanci Zoppi brings vast amounts of fun and frustration into the role of Dot as she does all she can to turn George’s attention – at least for a few moments – from his brushes to look and be with her.  With time at the Follies being more to her liking than another night watching George try to get the right shade of black out of red, yellow, and blue, Dot weighs sticking with George or taking up with the more boring, but also much more affectionate and attending Louis the baker (a jolly, twinkle-toed Anthony Rollins-Mullens). 

While in songs (like her opening “Sunday in the Park with George”) Ms. Zoppi rattles off the rapid lyrics without one word being missed by us as audience, she sometimes veers vocally into too much nasal qualities or syllables that waver into areas not as attractive as desired.  The result is that her Dot is wonderfully acted (as in a parallel sequence of applying in poking motions her powder puff at the mirror as George punches his paint brush in “Color and Light”), but she is not consistently able to sell completely some of her big numbers – although she comes close -- like “We Do Not Belong Together” or the second act’s climatic “Move On.”

Where Nanci Zoppi does excel in particular is in the second act when she becomes an old lady in wheelchair who is supposedly the daughter that Dot and George have before Dot leaves George.  In this role, her astute acting abilities are matched by a voice that fits perfectly as an aging grandmother singing the touching “Children and Art.” 

John Barbery as the Modern-Day George
In this second act, the elderly Marie tells her mother, Dot -- now embedded behind her on the wall, forever in the famed, Seurat picture -- of her grandson, also an experimenting, controversial artist named George.  That second George’s challenges as an artist who must also worry about the business matters of pleasing money-generous patrons and foundations is the focus of Act Two, with John Bamberry once again being impressive in every regard as the great-grandson of the earlier George.  He and the entire company are especially exceptional – particularly because of Director Bill English’s astute choices – in “Putting It Together,” where the business of making art becomes all too real as a pressing pack of patrons want to be in-your-face close to the artist they support while he would himself rather be anywhere else but in their midst.

The parallels between the two Georges’ mannerisms and talents, their doubting critics, and their lost loves are the crowning touches in James Lapine’s book that combine with Stephen Sondheim’s astounding music and clever-beyond-words lyrics to make the musical such a favorite among many self-declared fanatics of the modern musical (including yours truly).  Like in many productions prior of Sunday in the Park, the Creative Team of San Francisco Playhouse also insures that the musical is one as visually as remarkable as it is musically and story-wise.  Bill English not only directs but has created a simple but effective set design the allows the projections and videos designed by Theodore J.H. Hulsker to reign supreme in not only re-creating elements of the famed painting, but also of the artist’s studio, the actual park and river, and of the modern George’s controversial Chromlolume #7. 

Michael Oesch has created his own artistic wonders in a lighting design that turns a wooden stage into a lush lawn of green grass, gently dappled in sunlight – one of many beautiful touches where the light so important to George Suerat is able to take a starring role in this production. 

The costumes of Abra Berman bring the Seurat painting into reality as its late nineteenth-century characters move off the canvas onto the stage.  At the same time, she adds much humor to the early 1980s where patrons at modern George’s art exhibit are clearly dressed to be on full exhibition themselves.

John Barbery & Maureen McVerry
Besides Mr. Bambery and Ms. Zoppi, seventeen other actors fill the staged canvas of the first act and the modern art show of the second, ably playing characters often full of delightful quirk, spunk, and peculiarity.  Maureen McVerry is a firm-minded, Old Lady on the lake’s shore who is actually George’s mother, combining with him in “Beautiful” with a voice that bemoans all the changes around her – one with touches of sung melancholy, desperation, and urgency – as she finally urges George to capture the scene of life around her before it (and perhaps she) fades away. 

Ryan Drummond is a rather pompous, fellow artist named Jules who, along with his wife Yvonne (Abby Haug), sings among despairingly “ah’s” and “oh my’s” in “No Life” concerning how his friend George’s room-filling painting has “no presence.”  But Jules is also flirty in the park, sneaking off behind the bushes with the Old Lady’s feisty Nurse (Michelle Drexler). 

Xander Ritchey
On the shaded shore of the lake, among others, are also a rough-edged Boatman (Xander Ritchey) whose gruff singing voice challenges George’s artistic perception in “The Day Off;” a smoothly crooning and courting Soldier 1 (William Giammona) and his silent, signing pal Soldier 2 (Elliott Hanson); and their new-found girlfriends who reel them in while fishing at the shore, Celeste 1 (Emily Radosevich) and Celeste 2 (Corrie Farbstein).  All of these and the rest of the cast double in other, modern-day roles once the Act Two scene shifts to the second George’s exhibition.

While there a few times when the pace and action of the production seems to slow in pauses between scenes, there is no quarrel that in total-cast numbers like “The Day Off,” “It’s Hot Up Here,” and the aforementioned “Putting It Together,” Director English and Choreographer Kimberly Richards know how to keep our interest and tickle us a bit with humorous interactions, complaints, and unsaid thoughts made public.  But in the end, it is the combination of a fine orchestra’s music (under the direction of keyboardist, Dave Dobrusky) and the strongly sung harmonies of the Chorus as a whole in those two renditions of “Sunday” that will be most relished by audience in the days following, just as been the case of all past productions of Sunday in the Park with George. 

In its annual, summer, musical gift to the Bay Area, with this Sunday in the Park with George San Francisco Playhouse leaves us with warm feelings and overall happy memories of a sunny afternoon stroll while also reminding us that there is no more sublime subject for a staged work of art than one about the creation of art and the artist behind it who sacrifices all to bring that work to life.

Rating: 4 E

Sunday in the Park with George continues through September 8, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Ken Levin.

Monday, July 9, 2018

"King Henry V": Day 9, Play 9, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Henry V
William Shakespeare

Daniel José Molina as King Henry V

“Therefore take heed how you impawn one person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war.
We charge you in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood.”

The King who looks squarely, calmly, and bluntly into the eyes of the Archbishop of Canterbury – a man willing to deposit huge amounts of Church money to persuade the King to battle hated France – this King is clearly not the same Prince Hal who once spent his nights in the dark alleys and bars of London with his rotund, rascally pal, Sir John Falstaff.  In this 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging of William Shakespeare’s King Henry V, the prince-now-king is once again played by Daniel José Molina as he did in the 2017 Henry IV, Parts One and Two, but now his Prince Hal’s entire persona, demeanor, and even countenance has solidified into a young King Henry V of steady mind and steely resolve. 

While Shakespeare’s preceding two plays detail the slow sunset of one king and the even slower, more unsure sunrise of his unruly son, his brilliantly written King Henry V leaves no doubt that here is a king still young in age but mature beyond what both his friends and foes expect.  We and they soon learn that this youthful-looking king brings much depth of insight about the costs of war, much courage to undertake great risks for a country he cherishes, and much wisdom to leave hot-blooded decisions of his youth long behind in order to make measured, just decisions that send important, long-reaching messages to his court, his armies, and his subjects.

Daniel José Molina as King Henry V with His Troops
However good Daniel José Molina was one year prior as Prince Hal (a role I describe in my review of Parts One and Two as “magnificent in a role that stretches the ranges of Hal’s maturity and manners to great widths”), he is even more stunningly superb as now Henry V.  Time and again, Shakespeare gives Henry some of the greatest lines ever written to describe the horrors of the battlefield and the resulting demise to families, words to provide courage and encouragement to soldiers even as they face enemy many times their numbers, and passages to ponder what it means to be a sovereign leader with the sleepless nights that come with such a responsibility.  Mr. Molina bravely takes on the titular role that the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Tom Hiddleston, and Kenneth Branagh have graced the silver screen; and the up-close interpretation we watch in the intimate OSF Thomas Theatre allows his Henry V to join that level of arresting performances. 

His is a king who is still very approachable, human, and down-to-earth, as is seen in a moving scene where he disguises himself and wanders around speaking and sparring in words with his soldiers.  But, as portrayed by Mr. Molina, this is also a newly crowned monarch who stands apart from all others in his quiet confidence in his own decisions, his calm and reassuring manner of making the toughest decisions, and his ability to inspire men on their way to almost a sure death.  With deep-set eyes that communicate a steadiness others willingly follow, this King is exactly who Shakespeare must have had in mind when he penned lines like the famous, pre-battle speech to his group of generals at Agincourt, forever known as the “Band of Brothers” speech:
“From this day to the end of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

The excellence of Daniel José Molina’s performance is made all the more so as he is surrounded by a cast of able actors who play multiple roles in quick-change fashion on the floor-level stage, only a few feet from an audience that surrounds on three sides.  Rex Young is the persistent, pressing Archbishop of Canterbury who advocates war with France for his own reasons quite apart what is really good for England.  He then switches to become a fair-reasoning, perceptible King of France (Charles VI) who seems to have intuition that this Henry is no longer Hal. 

Moses Villarama & Tyrone Wilson
Among other roles, Moses Villarama is the hot-headed, brash Dauphin, son of King Charles who so underestimates the young Henry, teasing him and making a huge mistake of sending a peace offering of tennis balls.  That latter act by the immature French Prince offers Shakespeare the chance to write a wonderful set of lines about the balls that Henry and the French emissary, Montjoy, get to volley back and forth, the herald played with fabulous French accent and demeanor by Jessica Ko.

Jessica Ko & Daniel José Molina
Jessica Ko is also the other child of Charles VI, Katherine, a princess who becomes part of the peace settlement between victorious England and a soundly defeated France.  The scene of Henry courting the French-speaking maiden in his English-only quest for her statement of love is one of the highlights of the entire production, with both actors showing signs of awkward, coy, shy, forward, and delightfully eager all within the same, short sequence.

Michele Mais & Kimberly Scott
Part of that scene’s fun comes from a closely watching Lady-in-Waiting of the Princess, a stern looking but happy hearted Alice, played by Michele Mais.  Ms. Mais also reprises her 2017, gloriously funny role as Hostess Quickly.  While she has fewer opportunities to show the bawdy humor of the past, it is her womanhood as a wife that reigns forth in this outing, especially in a scene where she says good-bye to her newly wed, off-to-battle husband (Ancient Pistol, played by Kimberly Scott) and his common-folk cohorts.  The farewell and tears by all is a touching reminder by Shakespeare of the thousands of such farewells – many final – that occur prior to every soldier embarking into a war, no matter what era or what set of sparring enemies.

The brutalities of battle symbolically and powerfully come to full life only a few feet from us as audience under the commanding direction of Rosa Joshi.  Scenes of hand-to-hand conflict, surprise confrontation, and deadly blows play out as a kind of bloody ballet as actors are one moment charging and dying as English; and in the next, the same as French.  While the time is clearly of another age, the timeless aspect of all battlefields is accentuated through the bone-rattling booms of modern cannons and artillery (Palmer Hefferan, Sound Designer) and the blasts of light from exploding, present-day grenades (Geoff Korf, Lighting) -- all on a fifteenth-century, French field where we know future wars of the twentieth-century will spill likened blood of the thousands who fight there. 

Director Joshi employs numerous devices to transform this rather small cast into hordes of fighting and dying soldiers.  With the lighting help of Geoff Korf where paired fighters are for an instance encased in a spotlighted box of horror, Director Joshi and Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo guide the roaring battlers through many frames of seconds-long, paired conflicts; frozen moments of death; and sudden rushes and retreats of soldiers in full voice of screaming bold shouts of attack and agony cries of injury.  In one incredible sequence, one soldier becomes a thousand as attacks come at her over and again, with blood in the form of scores of long, red rags gushing forth.  Those same rags – part of Richard L. Hay’s simple but highly effective set design and properties – come to represent the fallen bodies of both armies whose dead look the same when left lying in a field where their supposed differences led to their deaths.

While so much works so well in this production of Henry V, there are a few, rather minor issues.  The continual and often abrupt switches of actors from one role, one gender, one nationality to the next is sometimes confusing to understand who now is speaking among the thirty-plus speaking roles along with the roles as Chorus that the dozen actors portray.  The first half of the play sometimes drags a bit in all the build-up toward the never-pausing in action second half.  This is especially true when scenes of the commoners occur -- the pun-filled patrons of the two parts of Henry IV as well as Merry Wives, Pistol, Nim, and Bardolph -- that do not work as well in this outing as in the previous plays.  That all said, these are only minor blemishes in an otherwise near-flawless production.

The 2018 OSF production of King Henry V is a close-up, intense look into the face of a young leader who must make decisions that will cost many lives for a cause that one cannot help but wonder how it can be deemed worthy of such a price.  The battle before us becomes Every War; and the individual combatants, Every Soldier.  William Shakespeare, Rosa Joshi, Daniel José Molina, and the rest of this cast and creative team combine efforts to remind us that however sure and inspirational the leader, the costs of decisions are never any more noble than the dying breath of those unnamed many who fall again and again and again.

And as the epilogue so telling reminds us, the victory and final peace of Henry V will soon be completely and horrifically undone in Henry VI.  And so goes the world to this day.

Rating: 4.5 E

Henry V continues through October 27, 2018 at at the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at https://www.osfashland.org/on-stage.

Photos by Jenny Graham

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"The Book of Will"


The Book of Will
Lauren Gunderson

 

The Cast of The Book of Will
Imagine a world without Orlando, Banquo, Lady Macbeth, Rosylind, Caliban, Puck, or dozens of other Shakespearean characters who are our friends, even family.  But for the inspired insight, stubborn determination, and colossal efforts of a 1619, London bar owner and his best-friend actor – both the last, remaining leaders of Will’s group of actors called the King’s Men – most of the Bard’s beloved plays, stories, and persona would have vanished as soon as the actors of his time all died. 

Their rescue of partial and whole scripts hidden far and wide in the closets of actors’ widows, in actors’ boxes in their privies, or in the illegal possession of a former scribe is a story of adventure filled with much hilarity, some hubris, and tons of heart in a 2017 play by the prolific and popular playwright, Lauren Gunderson.  The Book of Will, now in its West Coast premiere at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a captivating history lesson and an emotion-packed story of romance – the gripping romance between people of the theatre and a profession that is their lifeblood and raison d’êntre.

Kate Hurster, David Kelly, Richard Burbage & Jeffrey King
Over a few beers at the Globe House Tap, the three remaining leaders of the King’s Men – John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage – complain about the abomination of their dear friend’s plays, the deceased Will Shakespeare, on the local stages throughout London.  A recent Ophelia giggled all the way through the third act of Hamlet; a misguided troupe just staged Two Gentlemen of Antwerp; and a young actor was seen performing the most famous of Will’s soliloquies as “To be or not to be, aye that’s the point. To die, to sleep, is that all?  Aye, all.”

Their concern about Shakespeare’s words being massacred by unscrupulous theatre groups that are worried only about attracting paying audiences (at one penny per play admission) becomes even more real when one of the three cohorts -- Burbage, the leading man of the King’s Men -- suddenly dies.  With his dying breath evaporates many of the most famous parts (Coriolanus, Lear, Anthony) memorized only by him, but not printed for future actors to memorize. 

Henry has the audacious idea that they must find and publish all the works of Will, an idea John finds outlandish since the proposed Folio would be excessively huge and expensive (resembling the kind of over-sized books sometimes gracing our coffee tables today).  Even as John declares, “I love Will’s work, but it’s not the Bible,” Henry persuades him that it is “publish or vanish” for all the great characters and their histories, dramas, and comedies they both so dearly love, leaving the only real option to undergo the herculean undertaking.

Cast of The Book of Will
The Book of Will reveals the subsequent story of how these two former friends and actors of Shakespeare secure funding, find a willing printer, and more difficult yet, discover the whereabouts of scripts of the plays already seemingly lost in the three years since his death (amounting to half of Shakespeare’s works).  In a world where scripts were owned and closely held under lock and key not by the playwrights, but by the playhouses that premiered them, actors were only given their own parts in print, making finding an entire, reliable script almost impossible.

Lauren Gunderson has taken a history not well recorded and added details she has researched and those she has expanded based on her own intuition and imagination of what could have happened in the four years it took for the first Folio to appear.  She gives Henry Condell the persistently expressed passion and initial driving determination that David Kelly so ably exhibits as Henry in this OSF production.  He mourns daily the death of his friend, even after three years of Will’s passing, and becomes obsessed to turn that grief into action.  John, on the other hand, is more realistic and cautious, with Jeffrey King arguing to the point of stuttering to both Henry and his own wife, Rebecca why this venture can never work.

It is Rebecca that Lauren Gunderson has awarded the role of ensuring that John comes on board and stays on board of this near-impossible task.  She reminds him, “A theatre is an empty place ... It is filled up with words,” as she prods him to go find those words and print them, no matter the cost to their own lives. 

When suddenly she becomes sick and John is ready to give up the pursuit even as the first, complete Romeo and Juliet is rolling off the presses, she encourages him onward in the task from her bed, “I know Will’s words made you, John ... Return the favor.”  And as she slips away from this life, her last words to a husband who is curled up beside her – theirs clearly being a real-life love story that Will could have written – are, “When the world gets too dark to bear ... There’s light in the words.”  Kate Mulligan is magnificent at Rebecca Heminges and clearly makes Lauren Gunderson’s point that the men we remember today in our history books did not get onto those pages alone.

Henry’s wife, Elizabeth (jovially played by Catherine Castellanos), also becomes a mover-and-shaker in the scavenger-like hunt for scripts, even though she too is at first a skeptic and worried about finances that may never materialize.  Kate Hurster is the daughter of John and Rebecca, Alice Heminges, who is quick-of-wit, ambitious, and an astute manager of the entire process of seeing that the first book is actually printed.  The role of the women in assuring that Juliet, Cleopatra, Beatrice, and Portia would have their voices heard hundreds of years later is further amplified in Ms. Gunderson’s script by the crucial, financial contribution made by Emilia Bassano Lanier – the so-called Dark Lady of whom many of the Bard’s sonnets are supposedly written.  Catherine Castellanos also steps with flair, fashion, and firmness of spirit into the role of the mysterious woman who answers John’s call for help.

Cristofer Jean
But men of course also play important parts in aiding the two, former actors’ mission for printing and preservation.  Among other roles, Cristofer Jean is the keenly meticulous, devoted, and somewhat quirky scribe of the King’s Men, Ralph Crane, who performs miracles in finding scripts and in serving as a chief editor of the Folio.  Kevin Kenerly – who dies early on as Richard Burbage after first performing for us and his pals a moving Hamlet soliloquy – later plays the blind, cantankerous printer, William Jaggard, who in the end uses the fortune he had acquired publishing unauthorized (and mostly inaccurate) versions of Shakespeare, to fund the legitimate Folio. 

The use of his printing facilities and financial means comes into play due to his son, Issac (strongly and convincingly played by Jordan Barbour) who brings a fire and zeal for the printing of Shakespeare’s plays because he has spent his young life going to see all of them on stage, acted by the very likes of his favorite actors, Heminges, Condell, and the recently deceased Burbage.  (It is Issac Jaggard’s name – not his father’s -- that is today recorded on the remaining copies of the original Folio, as a result of a moving scene we see between him and a father for whom he actually has much contempt.)

Finally, the most unlikely man to provide a glowing Forward to the Folio – Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s ongoing rival and late-night friend in the bars they both so loved – is given an almost larger-than-life portrayal by Daniel T. Parker.  The bombastic, egocentric, yet likable-by-a-chosen-few Poet Laureate of England is rarely without a drink in hand and never too far from a podium (even a bar stool) from which to ring forth his views and the value he places on himself.  Mr. Parker gives a deliciously fun portrayal, but one that also finds its way to deliver one of the evening’s most moving moments as Ben Johnson finally discovers why the world around him has so admired his once-rival.
David Kelly, Jeffrey King & Kate Mulligan

But the emotional peak of the evening, one that comes unexpectedly and that brings audible gasps and tears from audience, is ushered in by Kate Mulligan, now in the role of Anne Hathaway, widow of William Shakespeare.  Through the genius of Director Christopher Liam Moore – who already has proven time and again throughout the production of his astute skills to tell an important story with humor and heart – and the absolutely astounding videos and projections of Shawn Duan, we witness Anne Hathaway reviewing the first published Folio.  The words she, John, and Henry read come to life throughout the vast corners and nooks at every level of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in ways that every audience member will recall for a long time, leaving us with the images of the lasting, global impacts that these lovers of theatre and Shakespeare continue to have on all of us, even four hundred years later.

Rating: 5 E

The Book of Will continues through October 13, 2018 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at https://www.osfashland.org/on-stage.

Photos by Jenny Graham




Saturday, July 7, 2018

"Oklahoma!": Day 7, Play 7, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Oklahoma!
Richard Rodgers (Music), Oscar Hammerstein II (Book & Lyrics)





Royer Bockus & Tatiana Wechsler
After relishing an overture that is packed with numbers now encased in the Great American Songbook (during which audience humming and outright singing of words can readily be heard), anticipation is high for those first few notes of “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.”  But for the first time its seventy-five-year history of thousands of productions worldwide, the handsome, bow-legged cowhand who saunters in while singing those lines in chaps and boots is a cowgirl, not a cowboy. 

Bobbi Charlton & Tatiana Wechsler
There is still the expected gosh-darn swagger, the tip-the-hat politeness, and the cock-eyed confidence that all is right with the world that every well-performed Curly brings to the stage.  However, by the time this Curly shatters the morning air in her glorious contralto, “Oh what a beautiful morning,” we know that this Oklahoma! is going to be something extraordinarily special.  As if we needed any more hints, the big-smiling, transgender Aunt Eller -- pumping her churn in time with Curly’s singing -- underscores that this Oregon Shakespeare Festival Oklahoma! is a diamond anniversary production that Richard Rogers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) could surely never ever have imagined.

Oklahoma! is a rousing, foot-stomping, heart-warming adventure set in 1906 as one of the last of the original forty-eight states is about to join the union.  In their wartime, 1943 musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein solidified notions introduced in the 1927 Showboat (Kerns and Hammerstein) that a musical’s songs should advance the story (and not just be there for entertainment) and that musicals could be much more than just fluff and fun by introducing serious, even controversial themes. 

While there is much silliness, sparking, and spunk in Oklahoma!, there are also threatening clouds that keep cropping up on the horizon.  Two love triangles raise issues of class divides and prejudice against foreigners.  Neighbors are pitted against each other over land rights; and heroes and heroines turn out to as human as most of us are, with traits that are not always totally admirable.  But the dream of a tomorrow where unification can add up to something bigger and better than remaining divided and apart – be it the joining of two people into a couple or of a whole territory into a state – allows Oklahoma! to rise to near epical levels 

The Cast of Oklahoma!
The 2018 OSF Oklahoma! imagines what it might have looked like if this frontier state had begun as something more than a collection of mostly white heterosexuals stuck in traditional gender-defined roles (men roping the cows and plowing the fields, women shelling the peas and making fancy picnic lunches).  Director Bill Rauch challenges us to consider a state formed by yes, a majority of heterosexuals, but one where also lesbian-and-gay-coupled neighbors; a respected transgender matriarch of the community; a cis-gender, bisexual trader; a cross-dressing guy; and a bevy of cowhands of all races is a state as normal as apple pie, banjo playing, and square dancing.  Once we smile a few times hearing the gender-based pronouns in the much-beloved songs changed to match the same-sex coupling and once we wink at each other in some delight hearing “Ado Annie” is tonight “Ado Andy,” what is soon evident to us as audience is that the power of the Rogers and Hammerstein music and story tonight takes on a new, fresh, fully satisfying feel where old friends (songs and characters) are re-introduced as welcome, new acquaintances.

With a voice solid with deep resonance and yet with a sparkling feminine side that adds new meaning, Tatiana Wechsler is the cattle-herding Curly McClain who (female or not) “is so bowlegged that she could not stop a pig in the road.”  Notes lift easy and precisely and often with just a hint of playful devilishness as she describes “The Surry with the Fringe on the Top.”  She dutifully woos her one-and-only, the blonde and skirt-wearing Laurey Williams; and in doing so, she is sometimes awkward with an aw-shucks look and is at other times stubborn with a feigned, hurt face.  She is also often a bit sneaky with twinkling eyes betraying her otherwise smug grin, like when she pretends to court the overly silly, high-cackling Gertie Cummings -- humorously played by girly-girl Stefani Potter -- just to make Laurey jealous. 

Tatiana Wechsler & Michael Sharon
But her squeaky clean Curly also has a more sinister side.  In “Pore Jud Is Daid,” she hints in fairly graphic terms to the slithering, sinister-looking farmhand Jud Fry -- who also has a strong hankering for Laurey -- that committing suicide by hanging might be a way to get people finally to like the sullen recluse everyone in the community avoids.  However, as the competition builds between the two to an ultimate showdown, this Curly erases any doubts of her true good nature, bringing a sense of nobility, sacrifice, and bravery that is just the kind needed to conquer evil, win a girl’s love, and declare a new state in a voice that soars in the rousing, climatic “Oklahoma!.”

Equally impressive in his performance is Michael Sharon as the dark-in-spirit Jud Fry.  Jud shuffles in a slithering manner about the farm with head slightly down but eyes always on alert and with a hint of perpetual threat to some undetermined enemy.  His magnetic, animalistic attraction draws a visible, approach/avoidance response from Laurey (his boss on the ranch).  When he finally speaks of his love for her (in perhaps too brusque of tones but still with emotion-filled words), he comes under her vicious, verbal attack as someone below her social status. 

As Laurey shows her darker side, the deep hurt in those round eyes of black lead to a few moments of our true pity for Jud as someone perhaps too misunderstood by those around him.  When Jud expresses himself in song (“Lonely Room,”) -- his muscles drawn so tight as if about to snap -- his half cry/half plead, “The floor creaks, the door squeaks” rises to a full blast of astounding determination, “I ain’t gonna dream no more ... I ain’t gonna leave her alone.”  Overall, Michael Sharon captures a Jud Fry that draws both our sympathy as the misunderstood outsider and our repulsion as a snake with no good intentions.

As the third leg of this love triangle, Royer Bockus more than holds her own as Laurey.  She sparkles in spirit and song in “Many a New Day,” as she lightly skips over notes as if stones in a forest stream while also tapping across the stage with ease and zest.  Her voice easily matches Curly’s in humorous play and sincere expression in their combined “People Will Say We’re in Love” – a song each employs wonderful variations of voice and phrasing from sardonic to silly, from near operatic to clearly country, from soft whisper to trumpeting declaration.

Royer Bockus & Ensemble Members
When the two reprise the same song as their love is finally solidified, the radiance of her shining face is only trumped by that of her radiating voice.  There are times when in song she is like a plains’ meadowlark, so easy does she glide and project “Out of My Dreams.”  Likewise, Ms. Bockus is stellar in dance, joining full stage numbers with much high-stepping athleticism or with floating ease in a style of a ballerina.  This is particularly true in the moving close to Act One when she and the company portray in a stunning, superbly performed part-ballet, part-interpretative-dance Laurey’s dream/nightmare of the rivalry between Jud and Curly.

But the riches of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival cast spread way beyond the three, lead roles.  The other potential, same-sex pairing between Will Parker and Ado Andy is a continual source of much laughter and fun as well as an inspiration to see how natural their on-again, off-again courting appears as two men who are clearly in love but still with tendencies to shop around other handsome, hunky possibilities.

Jordon Barbour & Jonathan Luke Stevens
As Will Parker, Jordon Barbour shines with ebullience and excitement of voice as he also performs high-air leg kicks and fast two-stepping in the crowd-pleasing “Kansas City.”  Just as attention-worthy is his sought-after love, the high-spirited Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) who bursts into “I Can’t Say No” full of mischief, wandering eyes for other men, and a voice so infectious with fun to insure a liking by all.  His Ado Andy is particularly attention-grabbing with facial expressions that can be as sad a big-eyed, sloppy calf or as frisky and frolicking as a young goat. Ado Andy and Will perform a near showstopper in “All Er Nothin’” as they test just how faithful each might actually be once a marital knot is tied, with each still being tempted even as they head toward that first, full-on, stage kiss that brings a solid round of audience approval. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens & Barzin Akhavan
But to get to the alter, Ado’s burly, shotgun-toting mother in an over-sized ten-galloner, Ma Carnes (the terrific K.T. Vogt), has to be convinced Will has the required fifty bucks “to buy” Ado.  Further, a traveling peddler from Persia (and by the way, clearly bisexual), Ali Hakim (Barzin Akhavan) has to work his way out of being the reluctant third leg of the musical’s second love triangle -- a situation the mustached, wheeler-dealer gets himself into by promising Ado Andy to take him “to the ends of the world” and by his gun-toting Ma understanding that those promises happened in the backseat of Ali’s car.   All of the aforementioned are delightful in their comic character portrayals and talented in their musical and dancing prowess.

The Men of Oklahoma!
As wonderful as all the core cast members are individually (including Bobbi Charlton as the elderly, friend-to-all Aunt Eller so full of spry energy, wry wit, and ready advice), this production really shines when the full cast is on stage in song and dance.  Choreographer Ann Yee time and again turns the rather small stage of the Angus Bower Theatre (for a musical and cast this size) into eye-popping, foot-tapping, choreographic yee-haws.   Numbers send audience whooping and hollering in delight -- whether ones with all women in “Many a Day,” with all men in “Kansas City,” or with the full cast of twenty-plus in the barnyard extravaganza, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” where square, line, and polka dances are performed in both mixed-and-same-coupled pairings.  In all the numbers, skirts unfurl and twirl madly, boots hammer with gusto their rapid dance rhythms, and bodies fly through air with group precision – all the while voices sing in magnificent harmony and smiles beam on all. 

Daniel Gary Busby & Orchestra
Daniel Gary Busby leads the seven musicians who render in full due the beloved Richard Rodgers music with the sound of an orchestra two-to-three times the group’s size.  Linda Roethke definitely had some fun creating the costumes that butch up western-style cowgirl and cowboy alike while donning the more feminine in attire befitting the dress-up frontier social.  Sibyl Wickersheimer has minimized the scenic design, allowing a traversing fence that becomes a stage for both courting and dancing to be the main element, with the oft-dominant farmhouse of Oklahoma! stagings seen only as a slither to the side.  

But the strangely unadorned, Western-plains-colored curtain used as a backdrop does allow the lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind to play a major, starring role.  A muted sun seeps though the curtained sky but becomes brighter as the story progresses, transforming into a harvest moon like occurs in dreams.  Fantastically giant shadows across the sky accentuate choreography as well as moments of tension and conflict, of courting and love. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens & Jordon Barbour
Oklahoma! is much more than just a treasured heirloom of the American musical library to be pulled off the shelf from time to time, especially in our current, political state of affairs.  The teetering balance between divisive breakdown and total unity within a local community is a theme of this 1943 musical that resonates louder than ever in 2018 America.  But adding the elements of gender-popping/gender-bending casting along with mixed-race couples and a mixed-race community is a shining example of the kind of community that can move beyond its otherwise, deep divisions in order to be inclusive of all types of people and thinking.  Maybe none of our states began this way; but congratulations to Director Bill Rauch and Oregon Shakespeare Festival for reminding us in such a flawless, uplifting, thought-provoking (and yes, totally fun) fashion that this Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! can be and should be what all our communities aspire to be in 2018 America.

Rating: 5 E (Can I say “5+”?)

Oklahoma! continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at https://www.osfashland.org/on-stage.

Photos by Jenny Graham


Friday, July 6, 2018

"Love's Labor Lost": Day 5, Play 6, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Love’s Labor Lost
William Shakespeare


The Musicians of Love's Labor Lost
A huge pink pig residing and barely fitting into the upper balcony of the Oregon Shakespeare Theatre – the space normally reserved for heavenly beings or musicians – along with a column of over-sized, silver-starred mylar ballons; a tilting quarter moon the length of a car; and stringed, rainbow-colored lights draped throughout the arena is a sure sign an evening of riotous, maybe even bizarre comedy is in store.  If any doubt still exists, it is tossed out the window when a Blues-Brother-clad band (complete with the dark sunglasses) appears and begins to rock out. 

That this is a William Shakespeare play is what the ticket says, but that the play is Love’s Labor Lost begins to explain everything.  Perhaps no comedy of the Bard has as many forays into the silliest of puns; as much fractured fun with foreign languages; or the ongoing onslaught of multiple, mistaken identities.  Few can boast the same or more stock characters filling its stage.  Director Amanda Dehnert recognizes that the probability is high that many of the word-packed rhymes and Elizabethan references and jokes may go way over our heads.  She thus employs with tongue fully in cheek countless elements of slapstick, Vaudeville, early TV sitcoms, and comedia dell’arte to ensure that laughs ring loud even when the lines are not quite (if at all) comprehended.

William Thomas Hodgson, Daniel José Molina & Jeremy Gallardo
The young king of Navarre, Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) -- barely twenty, if that – announces to his three bro’s-of-sorts (who are also his attending lords) that women, food, and sleep are by royal decree going to be scarce in their lives for the next three years in order to devote their time to study.  Their jocular, horseplay ceremony of signing the necessary oath resembles a group of college frat brothers whooping it up as part of initiation, with all hands eventually dipping into blue paint to imprint on their all-white wear spread-finger signatures of approval. 

The Royal Courts of Love's Labor Lost
But when it is announced that Princess Rosaline of France (Alejandra Escalante) is arriving with three ladies-in-waiting and intending to be received at the royal court (for possible courting), they discover they must now bunk in a near-by field.  Boys being boys and girls being girls, the king’s decree is a challenge for all – including the king himself – to figure out ways to circumvent the order without getting caught.  And thus begins all sorts of sly and silly strategies to send secret messages of love, to meet each other in supposed disguise, and to find hidden corners to sneak a few words – or better yet, a kiss or two.

Tatiana Wechsler, Alejandro Escalante, Jennie Greenberry & Nina Feelings
The free-love, flower-child, and frisky-filled days of the 1960s have clearly influenced the increasingly hilarious choices of Director Dehnert and her creative team.  The all-white, flowing attires of both royal parties become canvases for multi-colored, paint-brush applications, as the young folk continually apply designs and paint strokes to their own and each other’s clothing (reminding one of scenes from the Summer of Love in San Francisco).  Composers Amanda Dehnert and Andre J. Pluess have written multiple tunes that cast and band members occasionally step to the mikes on stage left to sing, songs that have flavors of the sixties in their lyrics about love and in their refrains full of soft-flowing harmonies.  The lighting of Japhy Weideman, while not psychedelic, is certainly rainbow inspired, with even the gigantic moon shifting its hues to match the current mood. 

For all the fun in fooling each other that the royals are having, the people of Navarre are whooping it up even more in their own ways, each taking on a role that one might find in a comedia dell’arte troupe traveling through Italy in Shakespeare’s time.  Richard Howard is a delightfully pompous braggart named Sir Adrian “OOOO” (as he likes to announce himself) Dearmaddow, who clearly sees himself far more intellectual, handsome, and genteel than anyone around him.  His page, Moth (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) does not have much trouble out-smarting his master and has much fun trading barbs and puns with Costard, the stock character servant of the king’s household who brings down the house delivering a Vaudeville-inspired telephone act (using hands for phones) about the word “remuneration.” 

Richard Howard, Robin Goodrin Nordli & Chris Butler
Jaquenetta is the required, local wench -- in this case a savvy, tricky, and of course sexy one played wonderfully by Royer Bockus, who also steps up to the mike several times to ring forth in a crystal clear voice that sparkles in its delivered fun.  Armando Durán is hilarious as the low-key constable – appropriately named Dull – always in dark glasses who can often be found munching away at the local diner along with an equally hungry schoolmistress, Holofernes (Robin Goodrin Nordli), and a church curate, Sir Nathaniel (Chris Butler).  All three in multiple ways mock in wonderful hilarity the professions of which they so ably represent.

Together, the “lower” life of Navarre join, as can be the case in Shakespearean comedies, in a play within the play, this one called “The Nine Worthies.”  Honoring nine of history’s most valiant (Hector, Alexander, Pompey the Great, etc.), the play becomes one of the evening’s highlights as overhead projectors are used in tickling fashion to project animated figures.  The heads, arms, and flapping tongues of the likes of Moth, Custard, and the rest are rollickingly the background for projected foregrounds on their torsos.

The unnatural state of affairs has set the whole world of Navarre somewhat amok where natural courting between young men and women must be done in sleuth and stealth and where the feminine guests are left largely to fare on their own outside the court.  Perhaps as a lesson for us all, Shakespeare does not let all come together in a miraculous ending where wedding bells ring and all are happy.  Love’s Labors Lost is not sad in its ending and in fact, there is an uplifting, satisfactory sense.  Amanda Dehnert allows her actors x both to be solemn and to find ways to be hopeful, sweet, and even silly.  In the end, the evening still ends in rock concert style, with audience leaving probably not totally understanding all they have seen and heard, but certainly having seen enough to leave with huge grins plastered on their faces.

Rating: 4.5 E

Love’s Labor Lost continues through October 14, 2018 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at https://www.osfashland.org/on-stage.

Photos by Jenny Graham