Thursday, November 29, 2007

Album Droppings: Duplicatus Interruptus, or, "What Were They Thinking??"

I have proudly been making headway with the outrageous task I have given myself: to convert my huge collection of vinyl recordings to digital format. I've made it through the "G's".

But my monumental task is being interrupted, for at least several weeks. Christmas is rearing its unforgiving head, and I've had to break in order to get my Christmas Cards out. Due to my upcoming trip to LA, from which I won't be returning until the middle of December, it was necessary to dispatch my cards this week. All 109 of them. Don't even ask.

So, music duplication has ceased. But not before I marveled at several albums which must be labelled "What Were They Thinking?"

I mentioned earlier "Doonesbury the musical." Why oh why would anyone think that the very topical, very current comic strip "Doonesbury" could be translated into a standard musical comedy? In spite of having in its cast Kate Burton (Richard's daughter, and a Tony nominee lately), Mark Linn-Baker (later on TV in "Perfect Strangers"), and Gary Beach (recently a Tony winner for "The Producers"), the show is a true disaster. The creators, which included Gary Trudeau himself, placed the music in the hands of Elizabeth Swados, who never met a melody she couldn't deconstruct. (Her big claim to fame was the fluke hit "Runaways," which I bet I'll have something to say about once I get to the R's. But we're still on the D's here...). Her atonal music sinks an already shaky concept, and "Doonesbury" failed to follow in the footsteps of other comics-to-musical hits such as "Annie," "L'il Abner", and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

I've run across two more "What Were They Thinking?" musicals in my collection. I've already confessed to being a Hermione Gingold fan, so when I ran across an album with her name on the cover, I pounced. The show happened in the late 50s, and was called "First Impressions." It's the musical version of (are you ready for this?): "Pride and Prejudice." Yes, somebody thought Jane Austen's novel would make a good musical. They were wrong. Gingold played the mother, and two of the daughters were played by Phyllis Newman and Polly Bergen (who's currently chewing the scenery on "Desperate Housewives"). When, in the opening number, Gingold laments the fact that she has Five Daughters who need husbands, I was reminded of Tevye and his five daughters, all of whom are more interesting than this bunch.

Perhaps the weirdest of this set of musicals was scored by none other than Charles Strauss, who should have known better. Who in the world would have thought that "Flowers For Algernon" should be a musical? This is a real corker, with a pre-Phantom Michael Crawford fawning his way through the thing as the retarded Charlie who suddenly gets better, grows up, sleeps with his doctor, then regresses to his childish state. I kid you not, there is even a vaudeville-type number between Crawford (as Charlie) and Algernon. In case you've forgotten who Algernon is, get ready: he's a mouse.

Truth be told, there is one number in this stinker which deserved some life outside, maybe in cabaret acts, called "I Really Loved You." But the ballad is rendered unlistenable by the slurred delivery of Crawford.

Wow. And yet I press on, loading these losers onto my hard drive, then burning a homemade CD. Who's the real loser, I wonder?

Friday, November 23, 2007

"The Shakes" on a Roll

I made my second trip to the "new" Harmon Center for the Arts. "New" is in quotes because I went to the old part of the new center. It's the same old Landsburg where The Shakespeare Theatre Co. has been in residence for decades, but for fundraising reasons, the building is now part of the "new" Harmon Center.

Whatever. The show, "Taming of the Shrew," is a homerun for the hometeam. Inevitably, the two leads were imported from New York, but director Rebecca Bayla Taichman, making her debut at The Shakes, was smart enough to use her knowledge of the local talent pool (she's had success at Woolly in the past), and surrounded her leads with smart DC actors. It's terrific to see local kids make good, and they do, like gangbusters. Aubrey Deeker, Bruce Nelson, Erika Rose, and Fred Shiffman are among the local gang who are tearing up the Landsburg with jazzy, snazzy, leading performances.

So, with the terrific "Edward II" running at the Harmon's new New Space, The Shakespeare Theatre has a couple of swells running.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Album Droppings: Oddities and Discoveries

I have continued to plug away at the task at hand, and am now mid-way through the D's.


My collection contains more than a few odd ducks. "Cyrano the Musical"? Yep, it's a double album and includes a healthy dose of dialogue, so Christopher Plummer's performance, which won the Tony, is much on display. The show was a failure, but they made a cast album anyway. They used to do that back then. Regional theatre director extraordinaire Mark Lamos was playing young Christian, and it was fun to catch Tovah Feldshuh in the chorus!

I love it when people who later became famous show up in these doozies early in their careers. I had multiple finds in "The Canterbury Tales" (yes, they made a musical of that too), which had a healthy run in London but failed in New York. Sandy Duncan played a supporting role (and snagged a Tony nom for it!), and the cast included that battle ax Hermione Baddeley, years before she blew "Maude" out of the water. (She sounds completely over the top as the ribald Wife of Bath, for you Chaucer fans. I'm sure she was a hoot in the theatre, but on the recording, she shouts her songs).

This is not to say that I have only been recording obscure shows. For some reason, I have never purchased any cast album of "Company" on CD, so the duped vinyl will have to do. I know why I never bought it on CD. It's never been one of my favorite Sondheims, but on hearing it again, I really don't know why I formed that opinion. It's a terrific cast of actors (I love musicals that have ACTORS in them), and the recording is swell. Of course, it includes the iconic performance of "Ladies Who Lunch" by Elaine Stritch, but the real surprise is Dean Jones. His voice is so full of emotion, so right for the guy who can't commit. How many times has "Being Alive" been recorded? His is the best I've ever heard, full of pain and longing. Sondheim experts all know that Jones left the show shortly after opening it, and I've always heard that he was very nervous about his singing. I can't tell why. But I remember hearing, years after the fact, that another reason Jones withdrew so soon after opening the hit was that he was getting pressure from the Disney people. He was under contract to the studio for several family movies, and there has always been the suspicion that the character of Bobby in Company carried homosexual undertones. Disney wanted no hint of that.

I don't know if any of that is true, though I think if Sondheim wanted to write a gay character, he would write one. In fact, he only HAS written one, to my knowledge, and he waited until the new century to do it: one of the brothers in "Bounce."

OK, back to the D's. Next on my turntable is another odd duck: "Doonesbury the Musical." What were they thinking? What was I thinking to buy it? And the worst slap of all: I actually SAW the thing.

And what is it about me that requires me to create a homemade disc of a crummy show that I couldn't stand?

Dance, Gypsy, Dance!

I took a bit of a break from the unwieldy task I have given myself, to convert my vinyl album collection to CD, and popped down to Signature Theatre to see what's doing.

I wasn't expecting much from "The Studio," as the review I read was pretty lukewarm, but I enjoyed the piece very very much. I love any behind-the-scenes look at how art is created; who doesn't love "Amadeus" on film, or "Sunday in the Park with George" onstage?

The performances of the two dancers really came alive during the movement portions of the play, and I have a hunch that these two are actual triple threats. They weren't given a whole lot of depth to play with in the text, so I hope the playwright continues to refine his piece. But it was a surprising and fulfilling evening of theatre


Album Droppings: TV Musicals

Two of the first vinyl albums which I converted to digital format were soundtracks for musicals presented on television. Hard to imagine these days, but back in the 50s and 60s, the major networks occasionally presented large scale Broadway-style musicals on the small screen.

Everybody knows all about Rogers and Hammerstein creating "Cinderella" for TV, starring Julie Andrews, and as the step-sisters, Kaye Ballard and the late great Alice Ghostly. Everybody also knows all about the perennial Mary Martin starrer, "Peter Pan," which was a moderate Broadway success, but which became a national triumph on TV.

But not many people know that Cole Porter also created a show specifically for television. "Aladdin" starred a young (get this) Sal Mineo, who thankfully was not required to sing much. The score was instead placed in the seasoned hands of Cyril Ritchard, Basil Rathbone, and Anna Maria Alberghetti. As I recorded the album onto my computer, I could recognize that the highlight of this Porter score was the hilarious patter song which opened the show, "Come to the Supermarket," sung by Cyril Ritchard as "the Magician":
"If you want to buy a saw,
Or a fish delicious when it's raw,
Or a pill to kill your mother-in-law,
Or a cloak inclined to cling,

Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking!"

(I guess this version of "Aladdin" was placed in China, though how the hell Sal Mineo ended up in it is anybody's guess...)
The second TV Musical soundtrack which I converted was "Brigadoon," starring Robert Goulet and Sally Anne Howes. The album severely abridges the original score ( I guess the TV show did too), but I purchased the recording primarily because I appeared in the show at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre several years ago. Soft place in the heart and all that. In this TV version, Peter Falk played the role I played at SSMT.

(That's me, not Peter Falk)

I guess in light of Goulet's recent demise, it should be noted that nobody ever sang these gorgeous tunes better. Or, from the sound of the album, was more boring doing it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Album Droppings: Songs of the Street and the Road...

The only way to tackle such a huge undertaking is methodically. The A-Z approach seems appropriate.

But I just couldn't wait. There were a couple of old albums I really wanted on CD, and have been waiting impatiently for them to be re released. The first is at left: Geraldine Fitzgerald in "Streetsongs." Yep, it's a musical, one-woman show. I know what you're thinking. If you even have any idea who Geraldine Fitzgerald is (or was), you are rolling your eyes at the prospect of her appearing in a musical. There's a joke in there someplace. To paraphrase Bette Midler, who said it about somebody else, "I never miss a Geraldine Fitzgerald musical."

But the thing is really a charmer. Fitzgerald sings old songs, some well-known, others quite obscure, and intersperses the concert with anecdotes about these chestnuts. Doesn't sound very interesting, and indeed, her voice is not well suited to song. But it IS well-suited to story-telling, which is what she is doing. The show ran in New York and on tour, and was actually filmed for PBS at the same time this recording was made, when she was appearing at The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. The DVD remains unreleased, the CD remains unreleased, and this vinyl recording is going for 25 bucks on Ebay (I just checked). Very obscure.

The second album I had to convert to CD is one I mentioned in an earlier post, Cass Elliot's "The Road is No Place for a Lady." For some reason, this album remains unreleased on CD, though all of the other of the big gal's work is now available, even records made in her pre-Mamas and Papas phase. This is the final studio solo recording she made before dying. (Her actual final release was a live album recorded at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore.") I am one of those who were fascinated by Elliot when she was alive, and I'm glad to see that her talent is still recognized so long after her death. But this album remains unavailable, maybe somebody has the rights tied up. One of the reasons I liked her so much was her attraction to old standards, at a time when absolutely nobody in the pop world paid any attention to them. Her big solo hit, "Dream a Little Dream of Me," was written decades earlier, and she continued to slip in old chestnuts with her newer material. Of course, these days, every pop star cuts an album of standards, but she was the first. This album ain't getting much respect; I've just seen it on EBay for about 5 bucks...

...and I'm not sure how much respect Cass Elliot got when she died. I think they finally put to rest the rumor that she died choking on a ham sandwich. She died of a massive coronary, brought on by choking on a ham sandwich. I won't repeat the tasteless joke which was circulated around that time. You know the one, where it is noted that if Cass Elliot had shared that sandwich with Karen Carpenter, they'd both be alive today...

So, two albums down. Hundreds and hundreds to go. This is going to take the rest of my life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

In Record Time

A few weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles at Costco (yes, I'm that guy) when I stumbled upon an unexpected item. It looked just like what we used to call a record player, but what is now called a turntable. Whatever it is called, I wondered why in the world anybody would buy such a thing these days. A closer inspection revealed that this was not your mama's record player; it was instead a device with which you can convert your aging and warping vinyl collection to nice, clean digital music. You just plug the thing into your computer, and presto change-o (thank you, Sherman Brothers), you have the ability to record your album collection onto your computer.

From thence, you can burn your own CD. But only for your own private use. No copyright infringement happening here.

This is a bigger job than I thought. First off, I must confess that I have a HUGE collection of vinyl, which has travelled with me from Atlanta to LA to South Carolina to DC, and now completely covers the floor of my small bedroom closet. My shoes sit on top of the records. Thankfully, I don't have many shoes. I'm not that guy.

Really, I almost never listen to any of the records, and in fact purchased many of the albums in CD form as soon as they came out. But there are many many items not yet released on CD, languishing on my closet floor, which I knew had importance, if only for me. And now there is an easy way to preserve them in digital form!

Not so fast, Sparky.

I already had an inventory list of all the albums I own. (yes, I'm that guy). In checking that list, it became apparent that I wanted more than three-fourths of my collection converted to CD. This was a long-term project, getting longer by the minute.

The only way to convert the album to digital content requires the playing of the album, in its entirety, in Real Time (no way to speed up the duplication process). Well, I thought, that could be handled. I can just put on an album, let it run, flip it at half-time (or Intermission, as so many of the records are original cast already knew I was that guy), and go on my merry way.

Not so fast, Sparky.

Obviously, I wanted the digital content to include the original tracks, in order, with the ability to skip from track to track. In order for this to happen, each track has to be manually entered into the computer as the turntable plays it. Yes, it only requires hitting a button between tracks, to recreate the tracks on the dupe, but it means that one can't, say, take a shower or a walk or make a phone call which would distract one from separating the tracks as they play.

Sure, some of the albums are so ingrained in my memory that I can race back to the computer just in time to punch the button. I know exactly when "Cell Block Tango" from "Chicago" is nearing its end, or when Cass Elliot's "The Road is No Place for a Lady" is winding down (yes, I'm that guy, too). But I have no idea when the various songs on "Ben Bagley Presents Noel Coward Revisited" end. I only listened to the thing once (which does not mean I don't want it on digital backup, of course. It's a collector's item! Yep, I'm that guy). In fact, I only bought the album, recorded in 1968, because of the performance of (are you ready for it? You already suspect I'm this guy): Hermione Gingold.

So, I have begun the loooooooong and fairly tedious task of listening to every album I want backed-up. Yes, it doesn't make much sense to take so much time and effort to create my own home-made CDs for items I have not listened to in 20 years or more, but, well, I' know...that guy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Damon Supremacy

I am not a pop-culture vulture, so I am loathe to weigh in on the brouhaha surrounding People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue. But I do wonder: how do they know? Has someone from the magazine examined every man alive to make sure?

(The answer to that is no. I am pretty sure I have not been examined lately by anyone from the press...and I asked my mailman. He wasn't examined either)

Everybody knows that "sexiness" is in the pants of the beholder, but no matter. I can say without hesitation that Matt Damon is the most underrated film actor of his generation. Forget about the Bournes... go back to The Talented Mr. Ripley. His work is flawless.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Autumnal Theatre Droppings, Classical Edition

Everyman Theatre has offered its first ever Shakespeare production, "Much Ado About Nothing." The pleasing show is dominated by strong performances by veterans Carl Shurr as Leonato, Wil Love as Dogberry, and of course Deborah Hazlett as Beatrice. It was a hoot to see uber-veteran Vivienne Shub steal her scenes (in drag!) as Verges, assistant cop. The other members of the large ensemble may falter a bit, but several had their moments, and I am sure that this Baltimore theatre's next classical offering will be even better.

The opening tableau in Edward II at The Shakespeare Theatre Company gave me a start. I thought Evita had just died, but no, it was just the old king. (This was not the first image which, oddly, reminded me of that Lloyd-Webber opus. In one sequence, Edward's queen is rousing the rabble from a scaffolded platform via an echoing microphone, though she thankfully does not sing. And a scene among the powerful nobles as they plot Edward's downfall was reminiscent of the Argentine Generals trying to remove Peron. The only thing missing was the rocking chairs...). But these momentary glimpses fell to the side as soon as the big royal masque was performed; like a mis-placed Gay Pride float, the stage teemed with flouncing fawns, drag queens, and plenty of male decolletage. It was an introduction to the king and his favorites which clearly startled the high-brow crowd who can afford seats at the new Harman Center, which The Shakes now inhabits.

We don't like the king much in the first hour or so of the play, and the rebellious nobility seems justified in their protestations. But soon enough, the aristocracy turns ugly, and by Act II, we are on the side of the king and his lover; nobody deserves to be treated like that.

I can say that Edward II is the best thing I have seen at The Shakes in over a decade. With precision and skill, director Gale Edwards moves through the tale of the monarch who lost his throne due to his obsessive love for a favorite. It's a very strong ensemble, with two standouts surrounding the leading performance of Wally Acton. Jay Whittaker as Edward's brother Kent negotiates his character's shiftings of allegiance with honesty (and he wins the Best Spit Award. All of us in the front row were sprayed at least once during his performance). And Vayu O'Donnell is a knockout as Edward's favorite Gaveston, who leads the king to ruin but looks great doing it (the giant "Angels in America" wings notwithstanding). For the first time in many shows at The Shakes, I did not have problems with any of the women (for some reason, they tend to cast showy, stagey actresses with little depth but who can accentuate their vowels). The women here, however, were quite good. The smaller roles were filled with smart actors, including a really creepy turn by James Konicek as the hitman hired to eliminate the king in a, shall we say, penetrating way. (Apparently Marlowe did not invent the horrific way in which Edward meets his end). Floyd King, David Sabin, and Fran Dorn, long-time stalwarts of the company, are underused but effective in their cameos. Maybe they have more to do in the "Tamburlaine," which runs in rep.

This was my first visit to The Shakespeare Theatre's new Harman Center for the Arts, and the theatre looks quite stunning. I look forward to seeing a show with the thrust configuration, which we were apparently supposed to be seeing during this Marlowe Rep. Word on the Rialto has it that somebody made a huge budgeting boo-boo, and failed to account for the change-over of the space from Proscenium to Thrust. So, both shows are apparently in the Proscenium mode. (Actually, the theatre is calling the current configuration "End stage," rather than Proscenium, as it does not have the arch framing the stage. But it's the same look from the audience's perspective.)

Anyhoo, some poor schnook is out of a job because he forgot that it costs money to reconfigure the space from "End" to "Thrust," which was the initial concept for the Rep. That's OK, I'm out of a job, too, which gives me all this free time to see all this local theatre.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Theatre Droppings: Ambition Edition

Ambition was a central theme in two plays I saw this weekend.

I sometimes think that a limited design budget is the catalyst for some really creative thinking. Theatre Alliance at the H Street Playhouse works on a relative shoestring (I know, I've worked there), but you would never know it from their latest production, "Ambition Facing West." Tony Cisek has filled the playing space with a set of wooden platforms of varying heights, and placed the whole unit in a bed of white gravel. The setting totally suits this story, which spans generations and geography, and suggests a waterside dock from which characters long to journey and change. (That dockside feel is aided greatly by Ryan Rumery's terrific sound design). You might think I walked out of the show humming the set, but in fact, I left the theatre humming the Direction. Jeremy Skidmore has cast his show extremely well, and placed at its center two of DC's finest actresses, Amy McWilliams and Jennifer Mendenhall. From them all things flow, and this quiet and gentle play crept up on me and won me over.

MetroStage's "tick, tick...BOOM" is anchored by the charming and buoyant performance of Stephen Gregory Smith as Jon, the stand in for writer/composer Jonathan Larson. The central theme of the show, angst over turning 30 without much financial or artistic success, can be applied to lots of artists turning lots of ages, so, for me, the plot never really ignited. But boy, the music did, and in the larynges (yes, that is the plural of larynx) of Smith and his two cohorts, the point is made. I have only seen Stephen "in support," as they say, but he makes a winning case as the kind of quirky leading man to whom everyone can be attracted. And tiny spitfire Felicia Curry, whom I have never seen, makes a meal of a handful of different characters, and then shakes the rafters in her final solo. Matt Pearson's role of the gay best friend (the show was written in 1990, so that's not as trite as it now sounds) drops a bombshell near the end of the piece, one which from today's advantage, we can see coming. The CityPaper review of this production complained about this sudden diversion, but from my seat, the revelation motivated our hero to continue his quest for artistic expression. As Jon sits down at a discarded piano and plunks out new notes, we can imagine Jonathan Larson doing the same, and coming up with his Pulitzer winning "Rent," in which AIDS is a haunting presence.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Autumnal Droppings, Part II

I had hoped to start the weekend off by catching the "Naked Cabaret" performance at the Warehouse, but their final shows were unexpectedly cancelled. I was greatly disappointed to miss it, as I'm sure Steve Cupo and his gang were putting on a good show (fully dressed, the title refers to emotional nudity).

Saturday night, I caught the wonderfully wacky Ray Ficca in "The Jungle Book" at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. The story is familiar to anyone who grew up in the sixties, since the Disney cartoon was a classic. (Nobody actually reads Kipling anymore, do they?) This version was a more academic, less overly comical approach, and even livewire Ray, as the villainous tiger Shere Khan, was more subdued than in other, more comic pieces. I appreciated the fact that director Kate Bryer chose a costuming concept which allowed the actors to be seen, rather than be hidden by Animal Wear. The house was full to the brim with kids and parents, who eagerly joined in the audience participatory moments in the piece.

Sunday afternoon I made the schlep out to Front Royal, VA, to catch the world premiere offered by Wayside Theatre in their temporary home: "Shadow of the Raven: The Stories of Edgar Allen Poe." This new piece is very much a hybrid, with lots of laughs and even a puppet show which goes terribly wrong (Punch decapitates Judy). It also aims for some frights, turning a bit Gothic in Act II. The action throughout is interspersed with music and song, the whole thing springing from one of Wayside's longtime artistes, Steve Przybylski (I wouldn't venture to pronounce that last name without coaching). I'm not qualified to judge music, but I particularly enjoyed the goofy round-robin among the characters, as they each sang Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" to the tune of a different popular song. I also enjoyed the presence of the writer / composer himself onstage, dressed as Harpo Marx and occasionally insinuating himself into the action. The whole piece is held together by the solid performance of my buddy Larry Dalke, ably supported by Vaughn Irving, both of whom I worked with in "Black Coffee" a year ago. Vaughn enthusiastically made the most of what is largely a reactive role. (And his Punch-and-Judy Snuff Puppet Show is pretty funny.)

I've already written about the temporary digs the Wayside folks have fashioned out of an industrial building, and I was impressed again by the roominess and the landscaped charm of the place. I just hope their audiences follow them to Front Royal...

Friday, November 2, 2007

I'm Missing a Gene... fact, more than one, but the one I'm thinking of tonight is the "Love Of Halloween" Gene. All others in my tribe have it, but I do not.

Halloween was never one of my favorite holidays, though I enjoyed it well enough as a kid. I grabbed this still photo from an old home movie from those medieval times, depicting one of the several Halloweens in which I went begging for candy as a clown.

That outfit was hand-sewn by my glorious Grandmother, and was so well-made that it was handed down for many many Octobers. I believe both my sisters in turn wore the thing, though I imagine I carried it off best. Orange always was my color.

By the time I hit my teens, Halloween was just an excuse for a party. I've uncovered a few snaps from those years, all of which reflect a grumpy attitude from yours truly. This must have been a costume for a party in college, and what a bad mood this particular Saint Peter was in that night. Perhaps it was the unusually cool weather in Heaven: note the pink turtleneck. (That's another gene I do not have that others in my tribe do: a fashion sense).

Here's a snap from around the same period, dressed as some sort of Roman Something, busy on the phone at the Sears Complaint Department, where I worked through college and beyond (no wonder I was grumpy). Note the recurrence of the turtleneck.

It seems to have taken orders from a boss to get me into any kind of costume during those years. Here's a half-hearted effort to be a hillbilly at my first waiter job (note the guest check in the left hand, and, once again, the grumpy attitude).

(this must have been during my Tommy Tune period...)

In this last photo, I have clearly given up on any kind of creativity regarding the holiday. Rip a hole in a sheet, slap on a mask, and be done with it all. (I have fond feelings toward this pic, however, as it was the last one I can find with my mother...I do have THAT gene).

I recall only one fun Halloween once I became an adult. A creative friend threw a party in which everyone was to come as their favorite villain or murderer. I came up with the perfect costume (wish I had a pic). I attended the party as Alex from "A Clockwork Orange." The outfit required only one eye made up with false eyelash and mascara, a bowler hat, a cane, and white shirt and slacks. I was a hit at the party and at the bar afterward...

I'm certain I have not dressed up for Halloween in over 20 years, and I'm sure I know why. I spend so much of my life dressing up in silly clothes, pretending to be somebody else, that I am just not in the mood to do it for fun.

Is there such a thing as a Halloween Grinch? That would be me.