Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Moments in The Woods

Into the Woods has been on my mind all week, probably kicked off by the high school production I attended (and wrote about here). It's surely one of my favorite musicals of all time, and probably one of Stephen Sondheim's most accessible (which is why so many high schools and community theaters tackle the project).

When theatrical impresario Noel Craig of the Old Globe died, I wrote a bit about seeing the original production of Into the Woods in San Diego, before it was refined and transferred to Broadway. Even in its gestational period, the play was masterful, intertwining several tales from the Brothers Grimm with an original story by Sondheim and librettist James Lapine.

That subplot, a baker and his wife longing for a child, provided the substance for two of the strongest musical theatre performances I have seen. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason begin the show as a mismatched pair, but by the story's sad ending, they have learned to grab every available moment in the woods. This short clip reflects their awkward justification for using deceit to achieve their goal:

Gleason won the Tony for her performance (deservedly swiping it from Phantom of the Opera's Sarah Brightman, and her own co-star Bernadette Peters), and it's a blessing that her work is preserved on DVD. That television version includes her showstopping number in Act II, which, unfortunately, is not available out here on the interweb. But take a peek at this snippet of the show's most famous ballad, sung here by Gleason when she returns to the stage for the show's final moments: she has been (SPOILER ALERT) stomped to death by a giant, leaving her husband and newborn son alone:

The 1988 Tony Awards broadcast featured the following clip, which takes a pretty mean hatchet job to the show's various plots. Phylicia Rashad had replaced Bernadette Peters as the Witch, but the rest of the original cast remained. Who knows if this montage (I guess we would call it a mashup of the show's score, thank you Glee) brought in extra audiences. Thankfully, that DVD version is a swell documentation of the theatrical experience which was Into the Woods. If you haven't seen it, do so immediately.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theatre Droppings: Children Will Listen

I had no business taking a vacation last week; my puritan work ethic argued I had not worked enough to deserve a rest. Naturally, I ignored those logical feelings, and embarked on a second vacation.

I've returned to the scene of so many of my previous crimes, Los Angeles, for more R&R. The trip has been highlighted by the two high school theatre productions I attended. The first, directed by my long-time soulmate Judy, represents the first time I have seen her directorial work since moving from LA in 1993. In fact, the last show of hers I saw, I was in:

Judy has developed the drama department at Notre Dame High School into one of the leading programs in the city. She presents three mainstage shows each year, the last of which I saw last weekend. Its cast was comprised of the advanced acting students in her third year class, who pulled off a little-known romantic comedy called Vacancy in Paradise. I had never seen nor heard of this piece, but the kids did a fine job, even in the face of a last minute replacement actor joining the cast (and by "last minute," I mean 24 hours before Opening). The original student was removed for disciplinary reasons, and was replaced by a junior who was smooth as silk.

The next day, I attended a youth theatre production of the musical Into the Woods. This was produced by an organization which gathers middle and high school students from all over the San Fernando Valley (and beyond), and puts them onstage in a large-scale, fully produced musical (last year, they did Les Miserables!!). I have to admit I walked in expecting to be bored, or horrified, or both (the play was performed in a church sanctuary), but I was very surprised. For a bunch of kids, they did a better-than swell job, with a couple of performers showing real professional promise, in my humble opinion. This group, the Youth Musical Theatre of Woodland Hills Community Church, seems to attract some of the top-notch teen talent in the area. In particular, the gals playing Cinderella and the Witch, and the two gents playing the two princes, had poise and charisma.

I didn't just stumble upon the production; the kid playing Jack is the youngest son of two of my old performing pals, Judi and Stephen Stewart. The three of us played together years ago, in a variety of shows, including a couple of original Robin Hood musicals, and some original Christmas projects as well. The Stewarts have produced a couple of offspring who retained their love of, and talent for, performing. Into the Woods was lucky to have young Daniel Stewart playing the sweetly dull lad whose kleptomania creates major conflict.

Seeing these two shows, with casts filled with young, energized kids sure of their talent and ready to tackle the world, reminds me of my high school days, and those feelings of anxious enthusiasm which accompanied every performance, every rehearsal, every interaction. I've already learned that nostalgia seems an unavoidable (and not unpleasant) side effect of my trips to LA.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Dance Party: A Brotherhood of Tap

I've been enjoying various clips, the past few weeks, of the late, great Lena Horne. While trolling through the available material online, I came upon this fantastic dance sequence from the film which provided her with her signature tune, Stormy Weather. Ms. Horne does not appear in this clip; our Dance Party stars this week are the incomparable Nicholas Brothers.

Fayard and Harold Nicholas were sons of entertainers, and were touring in vaudeville before they hit their teens. They appeared regularly at the Cotton Club, and were reportedly the only black entertainers allowed to mingle with the white patrons. They invented a signature style, which included leaping up and down stairs and leapfrogging each other, a technique which came to be called acrobatic dancing, or "flash dancing". (The technique bears no resemblance to the more modern "flash dance," in which a female factory worker is doused with water.) They influenced several generations of dancers, and included Debbie Allen and Janet and Michael Jackson among their students. Baryshnikov called them the greatest dancers he had ever seen, and Gregory Hines noted that their signature move (the "no-hands split," where they dropped into a full split, then returned to a standing position without use of their hands) would have to be duplicated by computer, if a biography of the duo were ever to be filmed.

If that Nicholas Brothers biopic ever happens, Gregory Hines's brother Maurice may have found the guys to star in it. (The Hines Brothers are in the picture at left.) Maurice is currently starring in Arena Stage's revival of Sophisticated Ladies, a musical revue which originally starred his brother Gregory. The current show is a smash, and Arena has just announced that it is now the biggest grossing production in the theatre's 60 year history. Apparently, another set of brothers provides the highlights of the production. Maurice Hines held extensive local auditions to cast his show, but used only two DC performers, John and Leo Manzari, a couple of high schoolers. They seem poised to become the newest tap-dancing brother-team, in the tradition of the Nicholas and the Hines brothers.

This week's Dance Party shows that the Manzaris have a lot to live up to. This clip from Stormy Weather, starring the Nicholas Brothers, displays a phenomenal feat of stylish athleticism; Fred Astaire called it the greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Theatre Droppings: What the Magnolias Saw

I was glad to spend a long weekend in North Carolina, checking up on the pater, and relaxing on his screened porch, overlooking the heavily landscaped backyard complete with waterfall.

That's the life. I have tried to spend more time there in the last few years, and have even worked in the area a bit, but opportunities for me in the Asheville/Hendersonville area have been slow to come, and I am usually pulled back to DC for professional reasons. While in the mountains, I was very glad I caught two shows from the leading professional theaters in the region.

My North Carolina Stage Company, where I did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead over a year ago, was opening Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. It took our audience a few minutes of tentative tittering before we got into the swing of the piece's style, and then the show really took off. It's the kind of bawdy sex farce at which those Brits really excel, with mistaken identity, cross-dressing, and a horny married couple as its catalyst. This was the strongest production of this play I have seen, with Charlie Flynn-McIver and Vivian Smith providing riotous central performances. I had seen the dramatic work of young Casey Morris in NC Stage's earlier production of The Beauty Lieutenant of Connemara, or whatever that Irish play is where Mother pees in the sink, and he continues to do great work. I had not seen Matthew Burke before, but his performance as the cop was quite wonderful. I have to hand it to director Ron Bashford, who solved some technical issues pretty creatively; I think the show's traditional set calls for a series of doors, perfect for the slamming usual in this kind of farce (somebody in the play exclaims, "Why are there so many doors? Was this house designed by a lunatic?”), but such a set is impractical in NC Stage's thrusty black box, so the director made lemonade. His production proves that an audience does not notice a stage set's limitations if the performances are good, and here, they are terrific. I hear the show has been extended a week.

I was also able to pop out to the Flat Rock Playhouse to see their current offering, Steel Magnolias. That Summer Stock staple is not one of my favorites, but it is certainly a crowd-pleaser among the oldsters who provide the core of the theater's audiences. I had heard that one of my R&G cohorts, Julia VanderVeen (isn't that a great name?) was in the show, so I drove out to Hendersonville to see it. I have previously written about the significance Flat Rock Playhouse has had in my life (I saw my first play there, as a little kid), so it was no sacrifice to attend a show there, no matter what they were doing.

Turns out, the show was a hoot, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It is very much an ensemble piece, but chief among the gals was Pamela Myers, who all Musical Theatre Geeks know by voice if not by name. She introduced the Stephen Sondheim classic "Another Hundred People" to the world, in the original Broadway production of Company, and earned a Tony nod for her efforts.

(That's Myers on the right, with Donna McKechnie and Susan Browning, introducing another Sondheim classic, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy")

Here, she played the proprietress of The Hairport, the beauty parlor which provided the setting for the show (I know such places are now called salons, but my mother, a true steel magnolia, always went to the Beauty Parlor, and I still think of them as such). The performances here were all very strong, and I credit director Scott Treadway with steering the somewhat sitcomish dialogue into more realistic territory. In addition to Ms. Myers, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Rebecca Koon, who delivered Clairee's hilarious one-liners with a refreshing dryness.

And need I say that my friend Julia was a standout? Regular readers of these pages have already discovered the phenomenon that my friends always seem to do outstanding work in their shows, and Julia is no exception. Her role, the squeaky clean Annelle, can come off annoyingly sanctimonious, but Julia effectively tracked her character from mousy doormat to proselytizing missionary, and still made us like her. That's a pretty neat trick.

Steel Magnolias's final scene is probably the main reason the play fails for me, as I find it melodramatic, maudlin, and manipulative. But here again, I offer kudos to director Scott Treadway, who helped his actresses achieve a bit of truth with this sequence; they were rewarded with a standing ovation.

I had an emotional reaction during my visit to Flat Rock, but only part of it was a result of the production. The curtain speech was given by a young, enthusiastic gent whom I assume is the new artistic director of the theater, Vincent Marini. He talked for more than a few minutes before the curtain went up, though he failed to introduce himself to us. About half-way through his speech, I finally assumed he was the new Chief Gee Whiz. He had already finished his promo when he remembered he wanted to say something more. He motioned to the booth to cut the sound (the pre-show music had already begun), and he started talking again. He wanted to introduce the theater's new group of apprentices, who had arrived only a day earlier from around the country, and were going to be in residence at Flat Rock for the next three months.

About twenty or so young, fresh-faced, college-aged kids stood up in the audience, and received probably the only applause they are likely to get all summer. I guess some of them may end up onstage, perhaps in one of the big musicals which Flat Rock produces, but most of the time, they will be working backstage, building in the shops, and helping park cars. Who knows, maybe they weed the lawn, too. But what a terrific experience they will have, living and breathing theatre all summer. Their excitement at being in the theatre that day was palpable, and infectious. I felt a catch in my throat, and a twinge of envy.

I wish someone at my undergrad, California Stage University Northridge, had mentioned the existence of this kind of apprentice program. Most summer stock theatres have them, and have had for decades, where very young actors just beginning their careers gather to live and work to support the theatre's season. It is a terrific way to learn theatre from the ground up, and to begin to forge the friendships which are a great part of a life in the theatre. I would have eaten up an experience like that, but the faculty at CSUN was either ignorant of such programs' educational potential, or just didn't care enough to encourage their students to investigate such opportunities. I never knew these apprentice programs existed until years later, when I started working in such venues as a professional.

hmm. I wonder if Flat Rock Playhouse needs apprentices...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Playing It Straight

I never heard of this guy until he stepped into some deep lavender doodoo last week. His name is Ramin Setoodeh, and he writes for (I don't know if his articles routinely appear in the print edition of the magazine, I let my subscription lapse two years ago, back when the magazine decided the commentary of Karl Rove was worth publishing). He is openly gay, a point about which we might think, so what?, but he's lately been reminding us of the fact at every opportunity.

Last week, he posted an opinion piece (you can read it here) which lamented the "fact" (the quotes are mine, as his facts are NOT mine) that straight actors can successfully portray gay characters, but "it doesn't ever work in reverse." (THOSE quotes are actual. He really wrote that gay people can never play straight roles successfully.) Of course, in his article, he immediately began to qualify that outrageous statement. Two of the most successful out actors in Hollywood, Neil Patrick Harris and Portia de Rossi, play roles which are "broad caricatures, and not realistic characters," according to Setoodeh, so their performances as heterosexuals must be discounted.

He also discounts the success of Cynthia Nixon, suggesting that since her work on Sex and the City occurred before she came out of the closet, her performances of that heterosexual character cannot be judged (he ignores the fact that Nixon has appeared in two Sex and the City movies since coming out, and no one blinks). He goes on to dissect a single scene in the old comedy Pillow Talk, claiming it proves that, now that we know Rock Hudson was gay, he NEVER effectively played a straight character.

And that seems to be the crux of his article (though the author denies it now, more on that in a mo'): once we as the audience are aware of an actor's homosexuality, we are unable to accept him in a heterosexual role. He ignores the fact that Hudson was widely accepted as a masculine leading man throughout his film career; according to this guy, we can not believably accept his work in those roles, now that we know, in hindsight, that he was gay.

Ramin spends a good deal of his article reflecting on what he believes is the failure of Sean Hayes to fulfill the heterosexual requirements of his current role in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises; he also slams the performance of out actor Jonathan Groff as a straight teen on Glee, claiming the performance seems that of a "theatre queen."

Setoodeh ignored two of the most admired actors working today, Ian McKellen, who is a superstar in the fantasy film genre (Lord of the Rings, X-Men) and who continues to play heterosexual characters to great acclaim (I've got news for you, Ramin: King Lear was straight), and Cherry Jones, who is currently winning Emmy awards playing straight on 24. Those actors don't fit into his thesis, so he overlooks them.

This article has stirred up quite a bit of controversy since it hit the web (it is also in Newsweek's print edition currently on the stands). Sean Hayes is widely known from his many years on Will and Grace, playing a flamboyantly gay character, and the actor himself has recently confirmed that he is gay. Despite the fact that Hayes has won a Tony nomination for his current work, Setoodeh believes the performance is stiff, wooden, and, well, queeny. "He looks like he's hiding something," the author notes, "which of course, he is." Now I don't know if Hayes is believable in his current role or not (the Tony nominators seem to think so), and I am not naive enough to suggest that every actor, gay or straight, is appropriate for every role. Casting Hayes (or me, for that matter) as Stanley Kowalski is asking for trouble. I wouldn't cast Brian Dennehy as Quinton Crisp, either. But Setoodeh's insistence that any faults he found with Sean's performance must be laid squarely at the actor's sexual orientation does every actor, gay or straight, a monstrous injustice.

With some righteous indignation, Sean Hayes's costar in Promises Promises, Kristin Chenoweth, wrote a scathing rebuttal to the article (read it here), and many others have jumped on the bandwagon, calling Setoodeh homophobic and self-hating. At a talkback Off-Broadway this week, both Cheyenne Jackson and Michael Urie called the guy "unconscionable" (they also called him an asshole), and the creator of Glee, Ryan Murphy, is calling for a boycott of Newsweek, even as he invited the offensive writer to watch an episode of his show being produced.

In the last few days, out actor Alan Cumming has blogged his reaction, and has reminded us that the world is full of gay people effectively playing straight, only some of whom are actors. Writer Aaron Sorkin has issued an article which I think places the controversial issue into perspective; he urges that we boycott US Weekly, In Touch, and the red carpet, rather than Newsweek, as those bastions supply the endless personal information we all know about celebrities; he claims, quite rightly, that we don't need to know, and in fact shouldn't know, anything about an actor's private life in order to judge an actor's performance.

Setoodeh himself has been backpedaling furiously since his ridiculous comments ignited the uproar, appearing on MSNBC and on Joy Behar's show to explain that his article was actually about the lack of openly gay leading men in the movies. A re-reading of his original article does not support that spin, otherwise he would not have spent so much time slamming a stage performance (Hayes's) and a TV performance (Groff's). It is the author himself who finds it impossible to ignore the personal life of an actor while watching his performance. I don't know if that is self-hating, but it certainly seems like an issue he should be addressing himself, rather than assuming the whole world feels the same.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Britney and Jamie Lynn's Mom Would Be Proud

I had every intention of devoting this week's Dance Party to Lena Horne, but that will have to wait. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Lena will still be dead next week.

But this clip caught my eye yesterday, and in the past 24 hours, has gone so viral that it's been yanked from youtube. It's popped up on news programs and has ignited a debate about how sexualized our young folk have become. Yes, somebody actually thought this clip was something of which to be proud. Even worse, somebody thought this dance routine was a good idea, flattering and educational to the children involved, and worthy of rehearsal, costuming, the works.

What do you think? Keep in mind that somebody gave consent to this routine. It's a tribute to every brainless parent who ever thought this kind of experience would be good for their kid.

The song is instantly recognizable, you couldn't get away from it last year. The original video has been parodied countless times, including that hilarious version from Saturday Night Live starring Justin Timberlake and the gang.

But this version is no parody. If you thought the tune gnawed at your brain before, take a gander at this monstrosity. You won't be able to look away:

These girls are seven years old.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Hey There, Gaynor Girl

I ran across this clip earlier this week, when I was researching the sad story of Lynn Redgrave's death. Lynn's big film break came early in her career, with her starring role in Georgy Girl, a film which I never saw but which is now #1 on my Netflix queue. Apparently, it's now on everybody else's list, too, as Netflix tells me it has a "very long wait." I bet a week ago, I'd already have it in my mailbox.

Whatever. This week's Dance Party is the title tune from Georgy Girl, written and originally performed by an Australian group called The Seekers. It was their biggest international hit, and was also their final recording before they disbanded. The tune was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song, and in the clip below, is being performed by Mitzi Gaynor.

Ms. Gaynor is still with us, and still performing, but is not really on anybody's radar these days. She appeared in a few movie musicals in her heyday, the best known of which is surely South Pacific, in which she played the leading lady, Nellie. She swiped the role from its stage originator, Mary Martin; the film was a popular hit but not a critical success; Gaynor made a buttload of money on the soundtrack album.

In her long career, she has appeared, on stage or on film, with the biggest names in show biz. Frank Sinatra, Donald O'Connor, Gene Kelly, David Niven, and Yul Brynner are just a few of her co-stars. She was basically a dancer who could sell a song, and in the 60s and 70s, she headlined a string of television specials which are still admired today (back then, musical stars who were not interested in weekly series often presented TV specials; Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Julie Andrews all produced more than a few specials during the period. And of course, the most prolific of these folks was Bob Hope).

Our Mitzi's specials were well-known for her dance routines, and for her glamorous costumes (Bob Mackie got some Emmy love for his designs). So, though Gaynor is not nationally recognized today, she was a big enough star in the late 60s to be invited to perform on the Oscar broadcast, singing one of the nominated songs.

The clip below is a bit blurry, but is clear enough to showcase Gaynor's over-the-top charm, as well as her ability to sell a song. And you gotta love the very 60s moves and garb. As I said, this clip came to my attention as I was writing my entry about Lynn Redgrave, who, along with her entire family, was seated in the audience watching the title number from her film being performed live by Mitzi Gaynor.

"Georgy Girl" was a huge hit for The Seekers, but they did not win the Oscar that night in 1967. The award went to John Barry, and his title tune, "Born Free."