Thursday, December 18, 2008

Theatre Droppings: God Bless Us, Every One Day More

I freely confess that Les Miserables has been near the bottom of my list of favorite musicals, ever since the First National Tour settled in Los Angeles and bored the crap out of me. I sat in the nosebleed section, which should not have made such a difference for such a gigantic production, but it did. I could not make heads nor tails of the story, all the characters looked and sounded alike, and by hour number three, I was ready to storm that barricade myself.

But I'm glad I succumbed to the temptation to check out Signature Theatre's re-conceived, scaled-down version, as the cast includes several of my favorite performers, and the word on the street has been very good. I enjoyed this production far more than that monstrous snore-fest I saw in L.A., though I have to confess that I have not changed my mind much about the material itself. To call Les Miz a musical is a bit of a misnomer, as it was one of the first pieces to be called a "pop opera," and it resembles a traditional opera far more than a traditional musical.

Signature has done a bang-up job telling the story, which I never could follow in the L.A. version. Here, the large cast of characters was all very clear to me, as was the plot, which is a bit unwieldy. As has become common in Signature musicals of late, several leads have been imported from New York, with at least three of them having played their respective roles before, in Broadway or touring versions. But our local gang has stepped up to the plate as well, with Tracy Lynn Olivera and Felicia Curry powering through their ballads as well as any Broadway Babe. The music in the show tends to grab hold of your brain and refuse to let go, but the lyrics leave a lot to be desired. Is it only in translation that so many of the songs are built around a question mark? Or are French lyricists really so, um, questionable? So many numbers in the show have a Rhetorical Question as motif that the material would make any Debate Team feel at home. It seems like every song includes some sort of "Who Am I?", or "Can This Be?" or "Do You Hear The People Sing?"at its core. Once you notice it, you can't hear anything else.

Chris Sizemore is a solid physical and vocal presence in the one-note role of the leader of the student revolutionaries, and the lone comic interludes in the evening are handled exceptionally well by Chris Bloch and Sherri Edelen. The strong ensemble is populated with Signature regulars, most of whom were handling leading roles for the theatre when it was building its reputation in that crummy garage space around the corner from the current, swankier digs. With Sigulars like Stephen Gregory Smith, Chan McQuay, Amy McWilliams, Tom Simpson, Matt Conner, Eleasha Gamble, and James Gardiner in the large ensemble, the story is being told clearly and robustly. This production is a success, even as I continue to struggle to embrace the material. The creators are pretty shameless in attempting to yank at the heartstrings, with each Power Ballad soaring past another, reinforcing traditional opera's tendency to Tell Us About the character, rather than, you know, show us. And as soon as that charming little mite Gavroche turns up, you just know he's doomed.

Another waif in danger on current local stages is that little dickens Tiny Tim. I popped down to see Fords Theatre's annual Christmas Carol only to lend support to several buddies in the cast. I am not a big fan of this story, and I've freely confessed that my favorite version of the tale is Mr. Magoo's. So, I surprised myself by being completely sucked in by the show. Billed as a "ghost story of Christmas," this perennial production is in dynamite shape. Heading the cast for several years running is Martin Rayner, an actor who, incredibly, manages to underplay Scrooge. In fact, the entire cast treats the piece as a work of realism, and the result is a completely believable production, even as spooks materialize through doors, in balconies, and in mid-air. The Cratchit scenes, lead by MJ Casey and Kim Schraf, should be shown to acting students as examples of how to make very familiar text seem new and spontaneous. Generous support is provided by my buddies Steve Carpenter, Clinton Brandhagen, Elliot Dash, and Claudia Miller (I never cease to be amazed by the fact that my friends are always stand outs in their shows. It's a phenomenon.) I never in a million years expected to be so moved by a production of this old story, but Mark Ramont, who has restaged the classic for Fords, really pulled it off. I think I embarrassed myself by weeping more than a few tears. At A Christmas Carol!!!

Majel Barrett Roddenberry


The First Lady of Star Trek

Barrett's sporadic acting career was dominated by her involvement with the Star Trek franchise. She can be glimpsed in a number of films and television shows, including Westworld and Dr. Kildare, and as a contract player for Desilu Studios, she appeared in the Lucy Show episode in which Lucy dons a kangaroo costume. Her career received a boost when she was cast in Gene Roddenberry's first pilot for Star Trek, called The Cage. Her role as the second in command on the starship Enterprise concerned NBC executives, who were sure audiences would not accept a woman in such a position of authority. When the pilot was completely revamped a few years later, she was demoted to nurse, changed her name, and donned a platinum blond wig. Her recurring role as Christine Chapel occasionally moved center stage, usually in relation to her character's romantic attraction to the inscrutable Mr. Spock.
Barrett's involvement with Star Trek continued well beyond the original series, and as the wife, and later widow, of creator Gene Roddenberry, she remained the caretaker of the "Roddenberry Vision."

On screen, she followed up her stint as Nurse Chapel in the original series with another recurring role in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, that of the flamboyant busybody Lwaxana Troi. Trekkies love her humorous encounters with the stoic Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.

Barrett can be heard on almost all of the Trek vehicles, including animated and live-action series and features, as the voice of the computer. Before her death this week, she had completed work in that capacity, on the upcoming Star Trek prequel film.

Beam me up, Scotty.