Monday, July 15, 2019

"The Language Archive"


The Language Archive
Julia Cho



The Cast
In her play, The Language Archive, Julia Cho explores that interplay of language and love as we meet a couple in the course of a break-up because spoken words fail them, an elderly couple who have spent a lifetime differentiating the languages of love and of conflict, and a young woman who learns a new language just so she can express a love she dare not speak in her native English.  TheatreWorks Silicon Valley opens its fiftieth season with a play that follows the company’s half-century tradition of celebrating the human spirit – joys, foibles, and all – by producing Julia Cho’s bold, both funny and sad play about how we humans sometimes triumph, often stumble, but somehow persevere as we attempt to communicate with those we love the most.

For the rest of my review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadwayhttps://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj172.html.

Rating: 5 E

The Language Archive continues through August 4, 2019 produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/buy-tickets/.

Photo by Alessandro Mello

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Cabaret"


Cabaret
Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics)

John Paul Gonzalez & the Kit Kat Dancers
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and its initial eight Tonys, Cabaret has continued to evolve through several major, award-winning revivals in both New York and London, becoming ever darker, starker, and rawer with each new production during its fifty-plus-year history.  The current, San Francisco Playhouse, summer-long production of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of American Musical Theatre is boiling hot from Minute One with sexually explicit grabbing, rubbing, pinching, slapping, and thrusting of every possible body part by a cast dressed scantily in cheap bras, panties, and garters or in torn t-shirts, leather, and boots.  While we hear in the opening moments our tawdry, tongue-licking Master of Ceremonies sing that in this 1929 Berlin, “We have no trouble here ... Here life is beautiful,” there is an immediate unease, foreboding, and sense of coming doom in his “Willkommen” that is much more visceral than in the original, happier welcome by the Emcee so many of us know from both stage and movie, Joel Grey. 

As powerfully conceived and directed by Susi Damilano, SF Playhouse’s revival and re-conceiving of its 2008 stellar production of Cabaret is in every respect even more startling, unsettling, and yes, sensational in 2019.   The director and her cast heed us not to forget the horrific atrocities of the Nazi past while also speak volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.

Atticus Shaindlin & Cate Hayman
Against a backdrop of increasingly threatening clouds of the coming storm of evil, two parallel love stories serve as the framework for Cabaret  -- stories whose doomed trajectories mirror the collapse of the liberal and accepting Weimer Republic society around them.  In a free-flowing, boundary-defying Berlin society that openly flaunts every diversity imaginable, one set of would-be young lovers is a gay man and a sexually active woman (still almost a girl); and the other set is an aging German (i.e., Aryan) spinster and a widowed, Jewish merchant, proud of his own German birth.  That they each find attraction with someone not quite in their own mold is the key to each pairing’s demise in the xenophobic world rising around them in brown shirts and Nazi armbands.

Atticus Shaindlin
Aspiring writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives on New Year’s Eve, 1929 from America, looking for inspiration for his novel and finds himself suddenly roommates with a nineteen-year-old, British nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles.  Atticus Shaindlin plays with an initially subdued, cautious air this starving writer who soon finds himself embroiled and totally fascinated in the fast-paced, frenetic scene of Berlin’s sleazier nightlife.  His sexual preference for young men like himself is a secret he finds he no longer needs to hide; yet he also finds himself surprisingly falling in love with this girl-barely-woman Sally, to the point of stepping up to propose marriage once she finds herself pregnant with the father possibly being one of many possibilities, including evidently Cliff.  Atticus Shaindlin’s Cliff is a fascinating mixture of a young man with a boy-like look of confusion over his evident enticement for this new world of sins and freedoms galore and of a young man who also carries within him a deep rooting of his Pennsylvanian, more traditional background and values. 

Cate Hayman
There is an internal vulnerability we can viscerally feel that is directly opposite to the outward bold and brash persona Cate Hayman’s Sally Bowles tries her best always to project.  But when her Sally begins to sing, it is that inner uncertainly and maybe just a bit of fear that is heard in her initially soft, shuddering notes in “Don’t Tell Mama” or in her slow and pause-filled opening of “Mein Heir” where a lonely note is often echoed by a quick and unsettling turn of the foot, hand, or head.  In each number, she employs notable shifts in tempo to shift moods quickly as her Sally recaptures the cocky confidence and disdain for care and caution that in turn lead her to sing with ever-increasing frenzy and volume.  In “Mein Heir,” she and the Kit Kat Klub dancers – girls, guys, and those either/both –take that frenzy and send it into warp speeds of sexually explicit poses and moves that become an out-of-control mass of bent-bodies, pounding thrusts, and butt-happy slaps.  In the end, there is no doubt but that under every sign of momentary helplessness that Sally may periodically exhibit, there is a much stronger defiance and survival-seeking stubbornness that can find multiple ways to be angrily asserted.

In “Mein Heir,” Sally provides a warning of the shockwave about to hit German society of which she sings: “It was a fine affair, but now it’s over.”  Later, she sings an initially questioning, then somewhat hopeful, but in the end clearly doubtful “Maybe This Time,” delivering a message trying its best to be happy but with a feeling of doom as she belts, “It’s got to happen, happen sometime, maybe this time, I’ll win.”  While both songs are about her love life, the moods, looks, and intonations Cate Hayman employs in each song paint a picture of something dire on the horizon for not just her, but for all the society around her. 

It is in her closing “Cabaret” that Cate Hayman most departs from the Liza Minnelli film and recorded version of Sally Bowles so many of us know so well.  This Sally enters a bit drunk/drugged, barely able to stand or sing.  As she stands alone at the microphone recalling her friend Elsie’s tragic but peace-producing end, we sense Sally is predicting her own, inevitable demise.  As she becomes more hard-hitting, angry, even violent declaring, “When I go, I’m going like Elsie,” her follow-up of “it’s only a cabaret” is resounding in its conclusion that while she has chosen to stay in Berlin and not follow Cliff to London, she knows that the end for her and for this act called free-wheeling Berlin is soon coming to a German close.  Cate Hayman has captured her own, strikingly singular portrayal of Sally Bowles – one worth the price of the ticket to see.

Kit Kat Dancers
Sally is often accompanied by up to seven chorus dancers of the Kit Kat Klub, whose mixed and fluid genders flaunt their bodies scantily clothed usually in various forms of cheap, sexy, undergarments conceived by costume designer Abra Berman (who also clothes them in leather, boots, and Nazi hats).  Their dances are suggestive to the max; raw to the point of no restraint; and full of the highest kicks, splits in every direction (up, down, sideways), and moves that have to be seen with our own bugged eyes to believe – all designed by the brilliant choreographer, Nicole Helfer, and executed with wow-impact by Dance Captain, Melissa WolfKlain.

Jennie Brick & Louis Parnell
In many respects, the more compelling and heart-wrenching love story of the two in Cabaret is the one between boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider, and fruit shop merchant, Herr Schultz.  Together the two sixty-somethings are as delightfully cute as two bashful teenagers as they flirt, sing, and waltz in  “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – also known affectionately as “The Pineapple Song.”  And what will be a brief moment, they are radiantly happy as they duet in “Married,” “For you look up one day and look around and say, some body wonderful married me.”  With a thin-lined smile and eyes that twinkle through their slits, Louis Parnell brings a sweet set of aging vocals as his Herr Schultz woos his Fräulein, played with equally endearing effects by Jennie Brick.

With an authenticity of emotional depth, Jennie Brick half-sings, half-speaks Fräulein Schneider’s earlier “So What?” as she provides us a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom that Fräulein Schneider has acquired.  But when she calls off her marriage to the Jewish Herr Schultz because she is unwilling to stand up to the mocks and threats of her Nazi-loving neighbors and friends, the dignified but resigned and deflated Fräulein Schneider looks eye-to-eye at Cliff and then directly at us in the audience and sings in a trembling, sad voice full of haunting forebode, “There’s a storm in the wind ... What would you do?”

John Paul Gonalez & Kit Kat Dancers
Always watching from a perch above or appearing suddenly in any one scene as a passer-by, a living prop, or a too-knowing observer, the Emcee is like a German everyman who is seeing and participating in both the frenzied world of complete, hell-bent freedom and the approaching dominance of Fascism.  John Paul Gonalez takes on the role made so famous by the likes of Tony winners Joel Grey and Alan Cumming and brings his own uninhibited, lip-smacking interpretation with a pair of either non-seeing or all-seeing eyes that appear to be missing a set of pupils – his eyes always appearing as large, white, eerie ovals peering toward us and perhaps into the future. 

With a singing voice that snaps, sizzles, snarls, and always seduces, his Emcee leaves all restraints behind as he, Rosie (Melissa WolfKlain) and Frenchie (Mary Kalita) repeatedly spread eagle, sing flighty “fiddle-de-dees,” and perform every XXX-rated way of having three-way sex in “Two Ladies.”  The Emcee is the voice of repulsive anti-Semitism in his duet with a gorilla girlfriend, Helga (Zoë Swenson-Graham), “If You Could See Her,” (luring us in first with a song silly and whimsical supposedly about tolerance).  He is also the citizen-turned-Nazi listening with intrigue to the scratchy recording of a young boy’s singing the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (sung by Samuel Vernick).  But when we see in the end whom the evening’s Master of Ceremonies really represents and thus what becomes his fate – along with a host of others we have met throughout the evening – we as audience barely have the wherewithal to remember to provide final applause for an incredibly powerful, affecting set of performances. 

With its walls of rough-wood slabs and sliding, wooden doors, the overall set designed by Jacqueline Scott along with the use of trunks and suitcases to stand in when needed as furniture becomes a stark, shocking reminder of the forced journeys and train rides that will be the fate of many we meet during the raucous, riotous evening.  The lighting of Michael Oesch can be wildly blaring, bleakly grim, or threateningly startling while the sound designed by Teddy Hulsker fills the air in effects and ensures every Ebb lyric comes through crystal-clear.  As heard throughout but particularly in the Second Act’s opening Overture, the Kit Kat Klub band as directed Dave Dobrusky triumphs with keyboard, wind, brass, and drum excellence as the hit parade of popular songs by John Kander ring down upon us from the musicians’ second-level perch.

I have been fortunate to see many outstanding versions of Cabaret, including revivals reprising the starring roles of Messieurs Grey and Cumming in the 1987 and 2014 Broadway revivals as well as SHN tours (2016) and memorable, local productions at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley  (1996), San Francisco Playhouse (2008), and Hillbarn Theatre (2017).  Each time, I am invariably left with two haunting memories.  The first is the earworm that will not go away of the alluring melody with horrific meanings, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (sung in this production with blood-chilling beauty by Abby Haug as Nazi-favoring Fräulein Kost and by Will Spinghorn, Jr. as the Nazi agent, Ernst Ludwig).  No matter what I do, I cannot seem to stop humming for days afterward the glorious-sounding tune, even as I remind myself that it is a call to Aryan youth and citizens to join the Nazi cause.

The second is Fräulein Schneider’s “What Would You Do” – with my always wondering what would I have done then if I had been either she or Herr Schultz.  Would I have stood up to others’ threats?  Would I have risked my life to save others?  Would I have remained with undue optimism that the inevitable would not happen?  Even now, I hear Fräulein Schneider and her stirring, haunting voice probing,

Go on; tell me,
I will listen.
What would you do?
If you were me?”

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Cabaret continues through September 14, 2019 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 Jessica Palopoli.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Indecent"


Indecent
Paula Vogel

The Cast of Indecent
As a violin hauntingly plays a song unknown but still quickly familiar in its sounds and rhythms as Eastern European Jewish, we see eight pairs of shoes at the stage’s edge – eerily reminiscent for any of us who have been to Budapest and have seen the moving memorial there to Holocaust victims with its abandoned shoes along the river’s edge.  A collection of luggage-bearing people enter the stage in somber coats and hats that blend into the bland background and the shadows, shaking their arms to the music as ashes scatter from their sleeves, just as we read a projection, “From the ashes, they rise.” 

One man emerges introducing himself as Lemml (“You can also call me Lou”) and explains that this gathered ensemble has a story to tell us, one about a play “that changed my life.”  But he also goes on to say with a premonition of where his own story will conclude in the camps of Nazi Europe, “Somehow I can’t remember the end, but I can always remember the beginning.”

William DeMerritt & Shayna Blass
And soon, we are transported to the Warsaw bedroom of a newly married couple where in 1905 Sholem Asch is reading to his wife, Madje, his newly written script for a play entitled God of Vengeance.  It is the twentieth-century history of this daring and thus controversial, Yiddish play that is the subject of Paula Vogel’s Indecent in which she also explores the rise of Nazism in Europe, assimilation of Jews in the U.S., the fears and realities of anti-Semitism facing recent immigrants in this country, and the role of same-sex relationships as an indicator of all forms of societal oppression of the times.  For most playwrights, the task would be too daunting to tackle such an array of heavy subjects.  However, as witnessed in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s gripping, spell-bounding, and deeply affecting production of Indecent, the challenge is perfectly suited for Paula Vogel, one of America’s most beloved and celebrated contemporary writers.

The Cast
As the one-hour, forty-five minute (no intermission) play proceeds, we see various scenes reenacted from Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, starting in a Warsaw home where a group of Jewish intellectuals (along with one cousin who is a tailor) has gathered for a reading of the new play by a eager to point of hyper, twenty-something Sholem Asch.  We then watch scene after oft-repeated scene travel on Yiddish stages throughout Europe, finally landing in New York in 1921.  Seven actors plays a variety of parts along the way, with a compelling, moving accompaniment of music threading its way throughout the many scenes, played by the roving, onstage musicians Christina Crowder (accordion), Debra Kreisberg (clarinet and bass clarinet), and Kimberly Fitch (violin).

Shayna Blass & Rebecca S'Manga Frank
That initial, salon reading leads most of the guests, including the host himself, abruptly one-by-one to stand up and refuse to read another word of the shocking script.  Even for assimilated intellectuals such as they, a story about a Jewish proprietor of a brothel whose daughter falls in love with one of his ladies of the night is just too much.  However, when the father becomes explosively angry after his daughter Rifkele refuses to denounce the love she feels for the prostitute Manke, the last straw for the gathered is when he raises a sacred Torah that he has commissioned for this daughter, ready to throw it in his dejected disgust to the ground. 

Even as his host fervently denounces the play as one that will surely once again ignite anti-Semitism among European audiences, young Asch’s passion for his play cannot be extinguished but is only inflamed anew by the reactions he receives that first night.  Interestingly enough, the same can be said for that for the lone, non-intellectual in that initial reading, the tailor Lemml, who has already told us that this play “changed my life.”

Lemml joins Asch as his stage manager; and we watch that final, Torah-flinging scene play out again and again from 1907- 1918 on European, Yiddish stages from Berlin to Bratislava.  As real life begins to imitate the stage, the two actresses who play Rifkele and Manke, Ruth and Dorothee, themselves become lovers, with Shayna Blass and Rebecca S’Manga Frank providing two persuasive, powerful performances as do all of this excellent ensemble, even as each switches frequently from one persona to the next. 

When the troupe finally finds itself in New York, an initial run in the Bowery meets to similar, positive receptions that the Yiddish theatres of Europe have awarded the play.  However, hoping to become more commercial and reach broader audiences, Asch agrees to an English translation that his poor English does not allow him to watch over closely.  When some of the more obvious lesbian scenes are removed by a scrutinous producer and the storyline is changed to suggest Manke seduces Rifkele not into her bed but into the life of a prostitute, the devoted cast erupts into conflict, with some relationships totally ripping apart.  But enough of the lesbian attraction remains implied in the script that an opening on Broadway leads to dire consequences for both the production and the cast. 

The Cast
Paula Vogel not only pulls us so engrossingly into this play’s fascinating sometimes frightening history, she enlightens us also about an important part of theatre history itself.  She also does not hesitate to pull us into the greater, often graver events affecting the actors and the world around them at that time.  Director Shana Cooper uses a recurring image of people waiting anxiously in lines to recall events like immigrants’ uneasy moments waiting to be called before a agent full of questions at Ellis Island or of an even more disturbing line full of faces racked in fear as they enter a concentration camp where there is no exit. 

But the director also ensures we get to relish parts of this history with big smiles.  In one scene from 1920, we watch dancing Jews dressed in traditional black with prayer shawls and payot hanging respectively from their shoulders and below their ears assimilate in a kick line of shredded coats and curls in order to live in a country where  – as one comments to another – “every Jew looks like a goy.” 

Clarinetist Debra Kreisberg & Cast
These new arrivals have sailed on a boat, assembled together on a large ladder while swaying in the imagined waves – just one of the effective devices Sibyl Wickersheimer uses in creating a scenic design that usually appears to be in a makeshift space where theatrical props are few and probably borrowed.  The lighting of Marcus Doshi plays a major, starring role in creating effects of shadowy settings in a hidden attic, of crudely spot-lit performances on various stages, or of darkened skies in a world full of evil and upheaval.  Deborah M. Dryden’s costumes lead us on a tour from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, from stedls in Europe to the streets of New York, and from Jews dressed traditionally to those fully assimilated.  Projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson keep us oriented as to time, place, and language, with our hearing the words of actors who speak perfect English when their characters are acting/talking in Yiddish and our hearing heavy-accented and broken phrases when they are trying to converse in English.

But above all, it is the cast that brings Paula Vogel’s heart-wrenching story to full life, leaving us in the end inspired by the courageous, dedicated actors they so ably portray who keep the play they so believe it alive, even in a hidden room of the besieged Lodz Ghetto of 1943.  William DeMeritt’s Sholem Asch is excitedly intense in his youth, with the passion for his play exuding his every word and move.  After the play’s undeserved Broadway bomb, Asch visits Europe in the early ‘30s to investigate pogroms on the Eastern European Jewish communities, with the actor’s post-trip portrayal of a forever-altered Asch leaving a profound and shuddering effect on us as audience.  Shayna Blass plays the loving supportive wife and partner of Asch, Madji, as well as both women who portray Rikfele in Europe and the U.S. – the actual lesbian Ruth and an American actress (not lesbian in real life), Virginia McFadden, who steps in after Ruth is upset with the New York edits to the play. 

Rebecca S’Manga Frank is particularly commanding as the tall, explosive Dorothee who is the prostitute Manke in Asch’s play and the on-and-off-again, real-life lover of Ruth.  Anthony Heald and Linda Alper take on the more senior parts of Paula Vogel’s script, including the brothel-owning, non-forgiving father of Ruth and his wife/her mother.  They also respectively portray the playwright Asch and his wife, Madje, in their later lives when the aged Asch refuses to let anyone revive the play that brings back so many sad and bitter memories to a man who on this stage and in real life left behind forever writing stage scripts instead to become a novelist. 

That elder Asch is visited in 1972 by a hopeful producer who very much believes God of Vengeance needs to be revived for a modern audience, with John Rosen played in earnest eagerness by Aaron Galligan-Stierle.  Earlier in our evening, he has portrayed both a highly insulted reader at the original salon and a play-condemning Rabbi Silverman of New York’s venerable Temple Emanuel.  As the latter, he delivers a fiery sermon against the play and what he adamantly believes will be its forever, harmful effects on an already vulnerable Jewish community in 1923. 

Finally, the soft-spoken tailor Lemml is beautifully portrayed by Benjamin Pelteson, with the man whose name, life, and shyness is changed forever by the play he helped read that night in 1905 becoming a firebrand for the play’s continued life on some stage, even that of an attic under Nazi seize.
Watching Lemml/Lou’s transformation and seeing his ever-deepening belief in a play so foreign to who he once was as a tailor is forever memorable.  Here is a common man brought up in an Eastern Europe, Jewish community in the first third of the twentieth century ready to risk his life in the belief that a play must be seen by as many people as possible for as long as possible – a play that beautifully states in one final kiss in the rain by two women that love is love is love, no matter who loves whom. 

And it is that scene with the heavens above literally flooding the OSF stage that we as an audience leave the theatre forever ourselves affected by Paula Vogel’s Indecent in at least some small fraction of the same way God of Vengeance forever changed one tailor-turned-stage-manager’s life long ago.

Rating: 5 E

Indecent continues through October 27, 2019 in the Agnus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham


Sunday, July 7, 2019

"Hairspray -- The Broadway Musical": Day 8, Play 8, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Hairspray – The Broadway Musical
Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan (Book); Marc Shaiman (Music);
Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman (Lyrics)

Katy Geraghty, Daniel T. Parker & Cast
It is only fair to open this review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Hairspray – The Broadway Musical with a warning:  From the opening “Good Morning Baltimore” to the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” multiple earworms will be implanted deep within your being that will ring forth in your ears for days to come.  Be further cautioned that for at least a week or more, you will likely out of the blue begin cutting the rug with some too-cool, ‘60s dance moves – no matter where you are or who is watching. 

These are the necessary hazards of having one helluva good time at the OSF Hairspray production that is Broadway-plus in every rock-n-roll, rollicking respect.  But even more important to note:  You will be moved by a production that also reminds us what it means to be the despised, ridiculed ‘other’ in a majority, prejudiced society – whether the difference is of skin color, economic class, size of body, or physical/mental special needs.  And finally, as you leave wanting to burst into song with your heart pounding like a drum, you will be inspired having witnessed what it looks like for those disenfranchised by the majority to stand up, take charge, and make change happen.  What more could one ask from one momentous, good-time evening of live theatre?

Tracy Turnblad is a high schooler – shorter and bigger than most of her classmates – whose fondest dream is to be selected as one of the dancers on the local TV, teen dance program, The Corny Collins Show.  That a girl who constantly suffers the brunt of cruel, hallway bullying by Corny’s blondest and supposedly prettiest dancer and Tracy’s classmate, Amber Von Tussle, does not phase Tracy at all.  After all, this is a girl who greets one and all on her way to school with the widest of smiles singing “Good Morning Baltimore” with an optimistic outlook that zings with the sheer joy of life. – saluting total strangers bustling to work, kids from the ‘other side of the tracks,’ homeless drunks, and even two, jolly rats popping out of the sewer.

Jenna Bainbridge & Katy Geraghty
Proudly sporting a globe-shaped crown of hair that is ratted and sprayed to the hilt, Katy Geraghty is a Tracy who exudes confidence, zeal, and determination to the hilt.  Not only does she demonstrate time and again an ability to belt exuberantly the 1960’s-era songs written by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), this Tracy can dance up a storm in every style from the Freddie to the Frug, from Shimmy to Swim, from Twist to Watusi.  And while every teen has her moments of being dramatic, when Tracy fawns and falls over the heartthrob of her life – Corny Collins and Elvis-wanna-be star, Link Larkin – every time she sees him her reactions are like she was in the middle of an earthquake in their intensity, just begging for a camera’s close-up on the black-and-white screen of a console TV with its 15-inch screen. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens, Katy Geraghty & Other Cast Members
Jonathan Luke Stevens plays the ever-suave, perfect-looking Link, who in fact does have the shakes and sounds of The King as demonstrated when he grooves out in “It Takes Two,” a number where Tracy joins him after sneaking onto his TV spot as the weekly dance program is showing live.  As she breaks into spasms being near him, the two are soon singing in electrifying harmony an ending that is topped with an exclamatory kiss that surprises both of them.  That smacker also sends shockwaves through all of Baltimore as this over-sized girl not only makes it big-time on a show usually starring only those much more petite, but she makes out with the hunky star himself for all the world to see!

Even though Link has been the boyfriend of the self-centered, bad-mannered, Hollywood-bound Amber (a convincingly obnoxious and hateful Leanne A. Smith), Link begins to find much more beauty in Tracy.  He even is warming up to and liking the idea that Tracy’s best friends include the African-American kids in their school that Amber and her friends avoid like the plague.  These friends are the ones that Tracy believes should not be confined to a once-a-month “Negro Day” program on Corny’s show, but instead has caused a city-wide upheaval declaring in a TV interview, “I’d make every day Negro Day” on TV.

Daniel T. Parker & David Kelly
Tracy’s genuine regard for everyone as equal no matter what the rest of the world says comes largely from parents who have taught her by their everyday life to disregard the meanness and mocking of others.  Tracy’s dad, Wilbur Turnblad (David Kelly), is the good-hearted, always upbeat owner of the Har-De-Har Hut, an outlet for novelties, whose inventions include exploding bubble gum and a still-to-be-perfected, sofa-sized whoopee cushion.  Her mom is the plus-plus-sized Edna, played as in earlier productions of Hairspray in proud drag by Daniel T. Parker, who stands all day at her ironing board as the owner of “Edna’s Occidental Laundry.”  The differently sized couple from the very blue-collar part of town are a Romeo and Juliet who can barely keep their hands off each other.  They bring down the house when they sing and dance “You’re Timeless to Me” in a number that is a hilarious and heart-warming mixture of Vaudeville and 1950’s TV-variety shows (with a touch of Fred and Ginger thrown in for good measure).

Tracy’s being chosen to be a regular on the Corny Collins Show – hosted by a flashy, fair-minded, and fine-voiced knock-off of Dick Clark played by Eddie Lopez – is the worst nightmare of the show’s producer, Amber’s mom, Velma Von Tussle.  That is especially true when suddenly the big-girl, big-hair Tracy becomes an overnight sensation and is leading Amber in the audience voting for “Miss Teenage Hairspray, 1962.”  Velma is even more incensed that Tracy wants to integrate her lily-white show, with Kate Mulligan releasing enough venom in her portrayal of Velma to vie as a wicked witch more vile than any Disney ever conceived.  But when her Velma lets loose in “Velma’s Revenge,” there is no doubt but that this witch can also sing up a storm.
Christian Bufford & Jenna Bainbridge

Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton (Jenna Bainbridge), too has to endure the pointed jabs of other kids because of a severe limp that has led her to be shy and soft-spoken. Her lack of boldness changes when all of a sudden she and an African-American kid, Seeweed J. Stubbs (Christian Bufford) meet and fall gaga for each other.  Both Penny and Seeweed fortunately have several changes each to wow us with voices that zing and dance moves that are split-leg snazzy.  Eventually, together they are just sultry enough to horrify Penny’s highly bigoted, prissy mom, appropriately named Prudy (a outlandishly funny K. T. Vogt whose frozen, shocked, facial poses are a riot and who is equally a comic star in roles as a gym teacher and a prison matron).

Kimberly Monks, Safiya Fredericks & Johnique Mitchell
This outrageously talented cast includes too many to recognize all, but a few more must be mentioned.  Young Tatem Beach is a big-voiced giant of an actor as she commands the stage every time her Little Inez rings out in song and/or dance.  Safiya Fredericks, Johnique Mitchell, and Kimberly Monks – besides playing other school-girl roles – raise the roof as “The Dynamites,” a Motown-like, sassy trio who take an already contagiously delightful song with Tracy, Edna and others – “Welcome to the 60’s” – and send it soaring even higher.  Finally, Brent Hinkley reigns supreme playing a number of quirky roles, including the fabulously funny owner of the Hefty Hideaway clothes store, Mr. Pinky; the evil, hair-challenged school principal who loves to hate and punish Tracy; and the creepy sponsor of Corny’s hit show, Harriman F. Spritzer, who lives and dies on the money he makes selling Ultra Clutch Hair Spray.

Nina Ball has brought from her San Francisco base her scenic design genius to Ashland in creating the Baltimore, two-story brownstone where the Turnbald’s live that converts to a record store and a TV studio in a moment’s turn.  The lighting of Jason Lynch provides the accompanying flash and flair for a stage that extends into a curved ramp near the audience, where powerful moments of both comic and dramatic natures occur where they can be experienced more vividly by all.  The costumes of Susan Tsu are yes, a parade of early ‘60s looks by both teens and adults but becomce much more as sparkly glitz explodes on stage in outfits so gaudy, outlandish, and sky-high over-the-top that they become a show onto themselves.

Production number after number somehow just get better, thanks to the choreography of Jacklyn Miller coupled with the directorial choices of Christopher Liam Moore.  Three sets of moms and daughters – different as they can be on the surface – share three, interlocking spotlights in a big-sounding “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” in a riotous round of rotating dressing tables where Tracy, Penny, and Amber try to convince their protesting moms – all belting “Stop! Don’t! No! Please!” – that they are ready to be independent.  Funny is just not adequate to describe the crazy, stop-and-start action and dance scenes of “I Can Hear the Bells” where Tracy imagines an eventual trip down the aisle with Link.  When she and Link do have a chance to sing expressing their teen hots for each other in “Without Love,” Director and Choreographer collaborate for a rib-tickling love number where an always moving jail cell’s set of bars separates the two but is never stationary long enough to given them or us time to catch our breaths.

Greta Oglesby & David Kelly
Tracy is in that jail cell because she has helped lead protests against the TV station’s policy against kids of color dancing with white kids.  That street protest is inspired by the encouragement of a grand dame who has spent a lifetime fighting battles to be recognized as equal.  Motormouth Maybelle is the big-hearted, fearless mother of Seeweed and is the African-American owner of a local record store and a stage performer in her own right.  She leads forth in a swinging, swirling, and sexy “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” trumpeting her mighty voice as a full stage joins her in bringing Act One to a standing ovation close. 

Later, Director Moore will make one of the most important decisions of the production by placing Motormouth and all the African American cast at the audience’s edge as she and they sing “I Know Where I Have Been.”  In that one number, Greta Oglesby is able to describe in her deep, smoky voice a past life’s many pains followed by breath-taking vocals that rise in evangelical testimony of hopes for a future of true equality.  While the little white girl Tracy, her parents, and a few of her friends have stepped up to join that fight, this production and this director make it clear that it is the African American community and its heroes like Motormouth Oglesby that deserve the real credit for victories like the final integration in 1962 of this rather silly but altogether important, TV dance show in Baltimore.

And it is that victory as celebrated in the stage-filling, theatre-rocking “You Can’t Stop the Beat” that brings the audience to its feet for good, joining with this matchless and marvelous OSF cast in rejoicing one hard-earned moment among thousands in the road to black-white equality.  But as we clap with them in satisfied triumph, how can we not realize that almost sixty years later in 2019 America, that road still stretches too far out in front of us to an endpoint where there is no longer the ‘other’ in this country?

Rating: 5 E

Hairspray – The Broadway Musical continues through October 27, 2019 in the Agnus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham


Friday, July 5, 2019

"Alice in Wonderland": Day 7, Show 7, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Alice in Wonderland
Eva Le Gallienne & Florida Friebus
Adapted from Lewis Carroll

The Cast of Alice in Wonderland
Dreams are often disjointed and full of strange things we sometimes only slightly recognize while they take us places that range from fascinating to fearful, from silly to sad, from comforting to frightful.  In directing Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Alice in Wonderland (adapted during the Great Depression from Lewis Carroll’s original by Eva Le Gallienne & Florida Friebus), Sara Bruner has with wild, unbounded imagination succeeded in turning the massive Allen Elizabethan Theatre into a dreamscape where near-countless scenes rapidly toss and turn in a little girl’s head as she dozes away.  Like in an actual dream, some of those fabulous and fantastical dreamed scenes are vignettes that make for a moment absolute sense while many others come and go so fast that the impressions they leave for her and for us may likely be forgotten upon waking.  But what will be surely remembered by her upon waking and by us upon exiting is that we have traveled together on a journey in a world populated by strange and wonderful beings that bear resemblance to pictures we have seen in our childhood books but when met live, are more whimsical, wild, and wondrous than any past picture or dream we have ever seen.

Emily Ota immediately convinces us she is in fact a seven-and-a-half-year-old Alice when she enters stomping about in a mood of childlike tantrum. Kicking furiously a stump, she collapses crying in a big, blue chair that has conveniently presented itself for her.  As her subsequent dream begins and proceeds, Alice is often impetuous and impatient, a know-it-all who is also extremely curious, and someone who takes everything quite literally but who also cannot help asking time and again, “Why?”  In other words, Emily Ota’s Alice is a typical little girl who can turn her proneness of being a bit bratty quickly into the ability to be the most fully charming, immediately likeable princess one would ever want to meet.

Emily Ota & Shyla Lefner
As she sings to herself in a state of half-awake, half-sleep, her dream world takes over as a big-eared, smartly dressed White Rabbit with huge pocket watch (Shyla Lefner) bustles all about worrying about being late.  Motioning for Alice to follow her, they head together in a most fanciful tumble into Wonderland, with different-sized hoops that dance all around them becoming their tunneled, turning, and twisting highway to the world below. A door too small to enter leads Alice through a sequence of size-altering adventures that lay proof to a director’s ingenuity as Sara Bruner calls upon the creativity we all once had as children to create this child’s world of fantasy.

Emily Ota & Lauren Modica
Alice finally enters Wonderland only to fall into a lake made for us real by the first of many miracles of lighting and sound that Mary Jo Dondlinger and Richard L. Hay respectively have designed for the evening’s land of impossible fantasies.  Bobbing in and out of the water, she meets a talkative blue-eared, big-eyed Mouse (Anthony Heald) who is totally friendly in his rapid conversation until Alice keeps mentioning her cat, Dinah – something a mouse does not want to discuss at all.

Emily Ota & "Birds"
When on dry land, adventures start coming at Alice in such a rapid succession that neither she nor we can catch our breaths.  Four,giant, feather-losing birds of various multi-colored, gawky-strutting species (whose origins could very well be Dr. Seuss) include her in a race and are totally ready to make her part of the flock until she once again mentions a cat who happens to like eating birds.  A Dormouse (Cristofer Jean) tells Alice his life story by reading it off his long tail while a puckered-lip, hippie-donned Caterpillar (Brent Hinkley) smokes his hooka as he offers sage advice and life-important philosophies.  While we too listen to what he says between his puffs that produce smoke of floating hoops, we are actually more interested in watching his eight legs that dangle and dance over the high-above ledge where he pontificates.

A beady-eyed Frog (Miriam A. Laube) with an intriguing invitation; a Duchess (Kate Mulligan) with the ugliest of babies who sings of how she abuses and eats her children; and a multi-sectioned, purring, and appearing/disappearing Cheshire Cat (Lauren Modica) are just some of Alice’s further encounters – all of which she alternates between wonder-packed amazement and twenty-question interrogations. 

Eddie Lopez, Cristofer Jean & Danforth Comins
Her questions particularly spill forth when she lands at a tea party that never ends (since the March Hare’s clock is stuck permanently at six).  There she is entertained while drinking from her three-leveled teacup by the hosting hare with pink floppy ears (Eddie Lopez), a buck-toothed Mad Hatter with his nonsensical riddles (Danforth Comins), and a sleepy Dormourse who wakes up long enough to tell in his squeaky voice a tale about sisters who live in a well of treacle (Cristofer Green).

Miriam A. Laube, Emily Ota & Robin Goodrin Nordli
But so much more is to come for Alice, with the kingdom’s various royalties still to be met.  Queens abound, including the absolutely short-tempered and very bossy Queen of Hearts (brilliantly enacted by Amy Kim Waschke); the pompously strutting Red Queen (Miriam A. Laube) whose every turn elicits its own sound effect as she runs faster than anyone without ever moving forward; and finally the White Queen (Robin Goodrin Nordli) who blows in and then out again in a terrific windstorm that is one of the evening’s best moments of full-stage, full-cast chaos.  But it is hard to top the fun and fury of the Queen of Heart’s game of croquet that involves the entire audience in batting around the balls that are sent there way by the night’s best of all props (thanks to scenic designer Richard L. Hay), pink flamingo croquet sticks that look as if they could fly away at any minute.

Daniel T. Parker & Kate Mulligan
And how can we overlook a joking Humpty Dumpty (David Kelly) whose perilous perch high in the heavens leads to an inevitable plop forty or fifty feet below before he is hilariously put together again by king’s men on their stick horses (the only kind of stallions we will see all night)?  The non-identical, identical twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Kate Mulligan and Daniel T. Parker); a Tom-Edison-aspiring White Knight (Cristofer Jean) whose inventions include anklets to protect his “L-shaped” horse from sharks, and a Knave of Hearts (Brent Hinkley) whose trial for stealing the Queen’s tart (remember that one?) demands Alice be a witness all become part of the constant parade of storybook characters whose stories are quick and often nonsensical and/or non-memorable but whose appearances all are eye-popping visions never to be forgotten.

Daniel T, Parker, Vilma Silva & Emily Ota
And that is because the star of the evening who rivals Director Sara Bruner in deserving the most applause is Helen Q. Huang whose scores of designed costumes cannot be described in words but must be seen to be believed.  It is incredible how she is able to imagine to life all of Lewis Carroll’s wildly weird concoctions – ones like a Gryphon (Vilma Silva) who is a cross between lion and eagle or a Mock Turtle (Daniel T. Parker) with his gigantic shell and over-sized paws.  What many of us have seen only created by animators and artists, costume designer Helen Q. Huang and wig designer Cherelle D. Guyton have now left us with larger-than-life memories of colorful characters without peers in any other medium.

Frankly, I must admit I have never been a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland – as a kid or now as an adult.  During some parts of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival extravaganza, I checked in and out of the poems recited or the songs sung – neither of which added much in my opinion to the evening’s enjoyment.  And as scenes came and went often in a rather abupt manner, some of them worked better than others in leaving a mini-story to be later recalled (as said earlier, much like in a night’s dream).  However, from a production standpoint alone, I heartily recommend that OSF’s over-the-top, all-bells-and-whistles Alice in Wonderland is definitely a ticket worth purchasing and a show worth seeing.

Rating: 4 E

Alice in Wonderland continues through October 12 the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham

Thursday, July 4, 2019

"Cambodian Rock Band": Day 5, Play 6, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Cambodian Rock Band
Lauren Yee, with Songs by Dengue Fever

Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Brooke Ishibashi, Jane Lui & Moses Villarama
A play about family displacement, trauma, and massive genocide is not a play one would normally expect often to laugh, to tap one’s foot to rock music, or to walk out feeling uplifted and inspired.  But when the play is written by Lauren Yee, what else could be expected since the prolific, much-honored playwright often tackles difficult subjects while still finding humor and heart in the direst of situations.  As is said about her in the current Oregon Shakespeare’s Illuminations, “She likes to insert a spoonful of laughter with the tears.”

The subject of her latest play, Cambodian Rock Band, is the murder of an estimated three million Cambodian citizens – men, women, children – during the years of Khmer Rouge dictatorship, 1975 – 1979.  While Lauren Yee does not steer away from a realistic taste of the horrors, she couples that examination with the important, little-known history and rich tradition of Cambodian rock music.  During the horrific, five years of the genocide, ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists and musicians died, with much of the music itself also destroyed.  But in the subsequent years since, much has been rediscovered through recorded tapes that were hidden; and it is that music that Cambodian Rock Band honors.

Lauren Yee uses the upbeat, contagious, hard-beat Cambodian mixture born in American rock ‘n roll, blues, and funk both to contrast the unspeakable tragedies of genocide as well as to highlight the indomitable spirit of survival of the Cambodian people themselves.  Cambodian Rock Band is her tribute – using in part the native language of the victims and survivors alike – of a people and a culture that not only survived a near-complete genocide but have learned once again how to thrive.  The lens of her story is one family among hundreds of thousands that was near annihilated in those few years and whose story went largely untold to the next generation – that is until one American-born daughter of Cambodian parents decides to return to their country to seek justice for all the families lost.

Neary is part of a group of lawyers who in 2008 are in Cambodia building a case against Duch, a Khmer Rouge official of the infamous prison S21who is awaiting trial for overseeing the torture and deaths of almost 20,000 innocents.  While there are seven known survivors, there is rumor of an eighth; and Neary thinks there is a good chance that person can be found before what will be the first trial of any KR implementers of the genocide. 

Brooke Ishibashi & Joe Ngo
To her surprise and consternation, her father, Chum, suddenly shows up just days before an important hearing at her hotel in Phnom Penh.  This is particularly suspicious because Chum is a man who has never shown much interest in his homeland or in fact, in anything Cambodian.  Why he is there soon becomes clear as he in futility tries to persuade Neary to give up her investigation of Duch’s atrocities, both believing the present government will never convict Duch and also fearing for her safety when he or other former Khmer Rouge members come to see revenge on her.  As she pushes her dad to talk more about a life in Cambodia he has never shared with her, she finally realizes the picture her team has of the eighth survivor is actually none other than her father, Chum.  When he refuses to tell her any details, she leaves him alone at the hotel, going to find out for herself what he must have experienced during his time at S21.

For all his past horrors and losses, the Chum we meet is a heavy-accented man who bears a constant, big-toothed grin and who appears to find immense excitement and joy in the simplest things (like fish that eat dead skin from his feet).  As Chum, Joe Ngo – an actor whose own parents are Khmer Rouge survivors – continually sends his voice on a rollercoaster ride through all possible vocal scales, riding the ups and downs quite gleefully with paused emphasis on words when Chum wants to make a special point to his somewhat exasperated, nonplused daughter.  After she leaves him to parts unknown, Chum decides to start sending her voice messages with pieces of his story in return for hints where she has gone, reenacting their own version of “Let’s Make a Deal” that they used to play together when she was a child.

Joe Ngo
Chum then begins to relive where he was that fateful Cambodian New Years Day, 1975, taking us back to the night when the Khmer Rouge ousted the legitimate government and showing us what happened to him once captured, imprisoned, and tortured in S21.  As we soon learn what Neary has never known, Chum was actually the electric guitar player of a five-person rock group called the Cyclos. Through his memories, we listen to the recording session his band was in the midst of making as the tanks and bombs arrived. 

For all its lyrics in Khmer, the music has a beat and sound we Americans readily recognize as the band rocks in Dengue Fever’s “1000 Tears of a Tarantula.”  As the noise of the approaching helicopters and tanks begin to shake them and us, the band realizes they only have one more number to play together, providing wild intensity to Dengue Fever’s “Cement Slippers” while adding stomps and desperate looks at each other as they sing and play for their very lives.  All along, we now watch Joe Ngo as a young Chum, realizing immediately that his high energy for life and ability to smile through whatever life deals him have both been with him for a lifetime.

Daisuke Tsuji
As the band now plays and even before as the story of Chum’s arrival unfolded before us, a strikingly handsome, immaculately dressed man with friendly grins and an outward charm has watched the proceedings, occasionally breaking in to make telling comments to us as the audience.  Earlier on, he has told us, “Even when I am not here, I am here ... watching, watching ... Welcome to my show.”  The suave, smooth-talker is none other than the notorious and now-accused Duch himself, played with a chilling, calm sense of being fully in control by Daisuke Tsuji (alternating the role throughout the season with James Ryen). 

As Chum’s recounting moves to the room where he is tied and bound to a chair in S21, we learn first-hand what it must mean to be alone as a prisoner who is being tortured daily by cruel, heartless questioners for a crime never revealed to him.  Joe Ngo’s performance is painful to watch while at the same time, we can only deeply admire the actor’s ability to capture some small part of what tens of thousands underwent during those years. 

Daisuke Tsuji & Moses Villarama
His chief interrogator, Leng, has connections and a story with special and surprising significance to Chum, with Moses Villarama providing his own chilling performance that brings with it some element of sympathy that we as audience cannot believe we want to bestow upon him.  Duch, a former mathematics teacher of kids, himself is now an active character and not just an observer in this, his chamber of horror.  Daisuke Tsuji continues to find ways to make almost human this most monstrous of a man whose desperate and unsuccessful search for sleep racks his very being and has special significance for his prisoner, Chum.  The two for a moment find some common ground of understanding when the condemned Chum sings to his soon-to-be executioner in a deeply affecting, low, and guttural voice Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.”

Besides playing the mighty-voiced singer Sothea, Brooke Ishibashi is also Neary, the mission-driven, serious-minded daughter of Chum.  Her outward impatience with her dad hides effectively the love that she in the end proves is very much there.  Her own search for her father’s Cambodian roots leads her to a life-changing night, one where she is joined by her father as Lauren Yee’s play also explores father-daughter dynamics in a climax where both actors further prove their mettle in a stunning, heart-touching scene.

Chay Yew directs the ongoing back-and-forth interaction of music and story, with each part providing its own important, independent narrative while fully supporting that of the other.  Takeshi Kata’s scenic design provides a backdrop of vivid signage markings of a modern Phnom Penh as well as the neighborhood back streets of an earlier city on the brink of takeover.  The design of S21 is abruptly stark, with the lighting of David Weiner adding the non-forgiving blight of a room of no good.  However, the lighting he extends each performance of the Cyclos has all the flash and blink of a rock concert, which of course is in part what this incredible evening of theater is all about.  Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design is a huge player in the evening’s success and impact, not only in balancing the blend of instruments and voices, but also in the many effects of approaching war and the terror of imprisonment.  Finally, Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes bring an impressive authenticity to times, events, and personalities.

The Cyclos
The eleven Cambodian rock songs are performed by the five of the show’s six actors: Joe Ngo (Chum), Moses Villarama (Leng and Neary’s boyfriend, Ted), Brooke Ishibashi (Neary and Sothea), Abraham Kim (Cyclos member, Rom), and Jane Lui (Cyclos member, Pou).

As pictures of only a few of the millions of victims slowly populate a screen behind the band, its members take the stage a final time to remind us in triumphant style that in their memory, Cambodian music once again is stirring hearts and creating smiles.  Audience members rise to their seats, exhausted on the one hand by this harrowing story while rejoicing with high energy on the other hand a family’s history now shared and a music’s tradition now finally a part of all our lives.

Rating: 5 E

Cambodian Rock Band continues through October 27, 2019 in the Thomas Theatre as part of the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham