Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Dance Party: The Palin Abstinence Program

Two of my least favorite things (reality television and the Palin family) collided this week, so naturally, they must be included in the Dance Party.

I'm told there are some Reality Shows out there which actually have some artistic merit. The ones which showcase actual talent, such as American Idol or Dancing With the Stars, should be right up my alley. Except I cannot get through a single episode. Whenever the contestant sits down in front of the camera, and starts to describe what he/she was feeling at the moment, I reach for the remote. Those moments reflect the depths to which our country has fallen; the "real people" are revealed to be illiterate, illogical, largely immoral, and completely self-absorbed. Those "interview" moments make my skin crawl.

So, I have never made it through a single episode of a single Reality Show, with the exception of Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List. I can make it through her show because SHE is the one sitting down with the camera, describing her feelings. She is hilarious.

So is Sarah Palin, though I doubt she means to be. It is incomprehensible to me that this barely intelligent, narrow-minded woman, who quit her job as Governor when it became apparent she could make more money devoting her time to the lecture circuit, anointed a handful of tea-party candidates in the recent primary elections, and has proven herself a kingmaker. It is further proof of the decline of the American public's intelligence, that they would blindly follow this woman who was the head of a state government but had never heard of Margaret Thatcher. And now, this creature's daughter has stepped into the spotlight, as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars.

Less than a year ago, Palin was interviewed by Oprah, and during that sitdown, she was asked about her feelings regarding the father of her bastard grandson. At the time, Levi Johnston was doing his best to extend his 15 minutes of fame by appearing nude in Playgirl, and pretending to be Kathy Griffin's boytoy. Saintly Sarah replied that she continued to pray for Levi, and that he was welcome in her home for Thanksgiving dinner. But only a few moments later, Palin inadvertently revealed the sanctimony with which she keeps herself popular with the far right wing, and sneered that Levi was doing his "Joe Hollywood" thing.

This week, Palin's own daughter began doing the same thing, strutting her stuff on Dancing With the Stars, with the apparent approval of her mother. How is this different from Levi's attempts to carve out a career as a famous person? Bristol Palin's only claim to celebrity is the fact that she is the nation's most famous unwed mother. This "advocate for teen abstinence," as she styles herself, ignored her mother's "values" and screwed her teen-aged boyfriend without using a condom. Let's put her on a TV show!

Do you think Sarah is holding her daughter to the same standards she holds Levi? How is Bristol's attempts to remain famous any different than those of "Joe Hollywood"?

Shameless self-promotion and hypocrisy seem to run with this clan.
Who knows how long Bristol Palin will last on Dancing With the Stars, and who cares? Well, ABC cares, since she is the ratings draw for this season. This week's Dance Party showcases our teen-aged bobblehead's first appearance on the show, shaking her boobs to the ironically chosen tune, "Mama Told Me Not To Come." I would venture to guess, instead, that Mama told her to run straight for the studio and grab the limelight while she can.

...and to think, this USED to be one of my favorite songs...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Theatre Droppings: All's Well That Ends With An 11 O'Clock Number

I attended two theatrical offerings this past week, which could not have been more different. Naturally, I'm including them both in the same entry. I'm economical that way.

All's Well That Ends Well is receiving a literate but somewhat sedate revival at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play is not one of the Bard's most popular, which may explain why The Shakes has not attempted it since 1996. I was in that earlier production, so I came to the current showing with some preconceptions. The reviews for this production have been pretty lukewarm, and I have to agree with most of them. There is nothing really wrong here, but the evening has a lusterless, moderately paced lack of urgency which is unusual for The Shakes. Trouble begins right away, with the terrible set design.

The Shakes has a reputation, well earned, for spending mountains of money on their scenic designs, and it usually pays off. But this is certainly the dullest set I have ever seen at the Lansburgh Theatre, and that includes my own production of All's Well, which was only a carpet and a platform:

You certainly don't need an expensive, elaborate set in order to effectively perform your story (see below), but this show's minimalist approach actually took away from the project at hand.

Marsha Mason has picked up some critical flack for her portrayal of the Countess, but I enjoyed her performance. It's down-to-earth and very American-sounding, as opposed to most of the other cast members, who are using the standard Mid-Atlantic accent which is favored at this most classical of companies. The other leading players here are doing a good job of telling the story, in fact, I freely admit that this production tells the story better than mine, which was hampered by Kelly McGillis's weepy performance as Helena. Not by coincidence, Ted van Griethuysen is playing the same role this time around as he did in 1996, the dying King of France. I've never seen Ted bad, and this is no exception. Paxton Whitehead is swiping all his scenes as a courtier and confidante, and my buddy Barbara Pinolini is injecting energetic juice into all the scenes in which she appears.

Though this production seems to tell the story better, I have to claim that my production in 1996 was a lot funnier. We had first class clown Floyd King in our cast, and, with Philip Goodwin and Wally Acton leading the charge, the scenes concerning the abduction of the vainglorious Parolles were laugh-out-loud funny.
Here, those same scenes barely raise a smile.

Over the weekend, I attended the latest offering from Ganymede Arts, a revival of the 1990s musical Falsettos. This theatre company, run by my old buddy from South Carolina, Jeff Johnson, deserves lots of credit for tackling such a difficult piece, and for finding a space in which to do it. Ganymede Arts has been homeless for I don't know how many years, producing their shows wherever they can. The past two seasons, they stopped renting spaces, and made their own.

Last year, they converted a back room of a knick-knack shop on 14th street into a performance space, and premiered a new piece called Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney (I wrote about seeing it here). That play (actually, it's a hybrid of a play and a cabaret act) has since taken on a life of its own. Ganymede has sent the piece to New York, twice, to appear at Joe's Pub, the cabaret space at the Public Theatre, and will be returning to Manhattan next month for a Halloween show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. The show will also have several West Coast performances in November (if you are in any of those areas, the piece is worth a look, go here for more info).

Have I wandered off-track here? What are the odds of that? Ganymede has apparently lost the use of the theatre they created last year, so this season, they have created another one. They have taken some backroom space at Go Mama Go, another boutique on 14th street, and built another performance venue. This one looks a lot more like a traditional theatre than the last, which is a good thing, since their first offering there is an established show.

Falsettos is a chamber musical using seven performers to tell the story of a man who leaves his wife and child for another man. I have been familiar with the piece since it hit Broadway in the early 90s, winning Tonys for Best Book and Best Score. (That award for Best Book baffles me a little, since there is so little spoken dialogue in the piece, it should be considered an opera.) But I had never seen a production of Falsettos, nor of its components, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. Composer William Finn, you see, wrote the piece as individual one-act plays, and it was director James Lapine who had the idea to put them together into a single evening. He obviously decided to ignore the first show in the trilogy, In Trousers. Well, who could blame him? That first effort was a pretty slight piece by a very young composer (I saw a rare professional production of it in a basement in Los Angeles, starring Bill Hutton; I wrote about it here). While I imagine that first one-act enjoys life on college stages, it's really not a bright opportunity for professional productions.

I've wandered off topic again. Jeez. Back to the current Falsettos at Ganymede Arts. The production is being presented on a postage-stamp sized stage, with only a piano and a set of chairs on wheels as scenic elements.

That's okay, this is not a piece which requires a big visual element, though it gets plenty of elegant support from the lights. Marianne Meadows has provided the strongest design element in the production, and though I've actually performed several times under her lights, I have to say this is the best, most evocative lighting design I have seen from her. She ought to be designing the lights for musicals all the time.

The stand-out performer in this Falsettos has got to be Noah Chiet as the young kid Jason.

He's got swell timing and a strong presence which more than stands up to the adult cast members. He is at the center of the proceedings during act one, though in act two, emphasis shifts more to the adults. I suppose the best known song in Falsettos is "What More Can I Say," a love ballad frequently heard on cabaret stages, but I particularly loved "Unlikely Lovers," a quartet sung by the two gay couples at the heart of act two.

By this time in the proceedings, there were quite a few moist eyes in the house, even among the straight college boys who were trying to hide their tears from their dates. To conclude the evening, Finn has provided one of the great 11 o'clock numbers in "You Gotta Die Sometime," delivered by Michael Sazonov playing a gent dying of AIDS. Whether by Jeff's direction or Michael's instinct or the composer's design, the build in this number was pretty spectacular, with an ending which left a ringing silence in the air. Nobody could clap after that display of searing emotion.

This production of Falsettos is a bit raw and underproduced, but in the end, that doesn't matter. The poignancy of the story wins out, and this cast is telling that story with heart and spirit. I only wish that Ganymede Arts had the resources to play it in a larger venue.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Dance Party: The Superstar of Soca

I admit, with a bit of sheepishness, that I had not heard of the musical style called soca, until the man who brought it to international attention died this week.

Alphonsus Celestine Edmund Cassell, MBE



He was born into a musical family on the tiny island of Montserrat. By the time he reached his teens, he was already well-known as a local performer, but it was the unexpected arrival of Sir George Martin, the famous producer of much of the Beatles music, which changed his life. Martin picked this small island in the Caribbean as the home for what became the AIR Studios, which attracted internationally known musicians eager to record in the peacefully lush surroundings. From 1979-89, Montserrat hosted musical talent from around the world, which inevitably brought attention to the local music scene, in particular, soca music. This homegrown hybrid of calypso, soul, R&B, and salsa was in essence created by Phonsie (as Arrow was known to his friends), and was irresistible.

Arrow began recording his music, and was soon an international figure. His singles charted many times in Great Britain (Montserrat is a British territory after all), and in the U.S., he had several dance hits, starting with "Hot, Hot, Hot."

Arrow was also a humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help his island's inhabitants through two huge disasters. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed most of Montserrat's 70 square miles and flattened 90% of the island's structures; as a result, the international music community fled and did not return. Since 1995, the island has been plagued with volcanic activity which has forced the capital city, Plymouth, to shut down permanently.

Major rebuilding efforts continue at the north end of the island, out of reach of the Sourfriere Hills volcano, which continues to spit toxic ash and lava.

For this week's Dance Party, please enjoy a music video starring Arrow, performing his soca hit "Groove Master," which hit #23 on the Billboard Dance Chart in 1988. If you are sitting at your desk while listening to this tune, prepare for some involuntary chair dancing:

Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell died Wednesday from brain cancer at the age of 62.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Turning No More

April 2, 1956 - September 17, 2010

The elder statesman of the daytime soaps will have its plug pulled tomorrow, after a 54 year run. It became the longest running fictional program on television after its sister soap, Guiding Light, left the air last year (I wrote about that demise here). It is the last survivor of the Proctor and Gamble Company, which was once the premier provider of daytime drama, having given the genre its name and having produced more than 20 series, but which has systematically divested itself of its productions over the past decade and more. Well, who could blame them? It costs about 50 million dollars a year to produce a one-hour daytime soap, with no rerun or DVD sales potential to offset costs; a game show or talk show is budgeted at half that amount. The soaps have seen a steady decline of their audiences for decades, beginning with the movement of housewives out of the home and into the workforce. It's also thought that the audience erosion was hastened by, believe it or not, the O.J. Simpson trial in the early 90s. The trial was carried live by all the broadcast networks and preempted daytime programming for weeks on end. Once the trial was over, the viewers never returned to their old viewing habits.

But back to As The World Turns, or ATWT, as we soap scum call it. The series was widely considered the most old-fashioned of the current soaps, and with some reason. It made its reputation during the period when all the daytime dramas were filled with endless talk and very little action, with melodrama-soaked organ music, and actors who were far from starry. But ATWT deserves some respect, and it's going to get some in these pages.

The show can claim a number of important firsts, beginning with its debut on April 2, 1956. It was the first soap opera to run a full 30 minutes, beating another P&G production, The Edge of Night, to the punch; the latter show also ran 30 minutes, but premiered 3 hours later, the same afternoon. Why is any of this important? Well, at the time, the daytime dramas were all patterned after the radio soaps, and ran only 15 minutes. The doubling of airtime meant that the stories told on these programs could involve a greater number of characters, rather than the single, usually heroic character around which the earlier, 15 minute shows revolved.

ATWT was a ratings grabber, and within 2 years, had risen to the top of a very crowded field. It remained the #1 soap opera for a whopping 20 years, a record which has since been broken by The Young and the Restless. But considering the sheer numbers of viewers who were watching soap operas during the 60s and 70s, as opposed to the smaller numbers during the 80s and 90s, ATWT must be considered the most watched soap of all time. The show was so successful that, in 1965, it created a prime-time spinoff series, Our Private World, the only daytime soap in history to do so.

At the center of that short-lived evening soap was Eileen Fulton's performance as Lisa Miller Hughes, a character which was also a trend-setter. (She is on the right in the above picture; the woman on the left is Geraldine Fitzgerald). Eileen's role was the first "supervixen," a man-hungry homewrecker who would stop at nothing to achieve her goals. That archetype created by ATWT is the antecedent to Dynasty's Alexis Carrington and All My Children's Erica Kane, and a host of other rich bitches. Fulton has played the iconic role for 50 years.

In 1988, ATWT defied its conservative reputation by presenting the first gay male character in daytime.

The writers were pretty brave to introduce Hank Elliot as a fashion designer whose off-screen lover was dying of AIDS. Other soaps were addressing the AIDS crisis by giving the disease to a heterosexual (usually a woman), so ATWT should be commended for their attempts to depict the disease in more realistic terms (at least as they were observed in the 1980s). The show also tackled the issues of rape and Alzheimer's in a pretty brutal fashion. ATWT can be credited with the first gay male kiss, the result of allowing one of their legacy characters to be revealed as gay (a legacy character is one which has substantial history on the show's canvas; in this case, the gay teen in question was a character who had grown up on the series, and was part of one of the show's core families).

As most soaps can boast, ATWT provided a training ground and a launching pad for a host of well-known stars. Meg Ryan spent three years on the show in the early 80s, an experience she has expunged from her resume. But Julianne Moore, who spent the late 80s playing twins on the show (and winning an Emmy for her efforts), is so proud of her association with ATWT that she made a one-day return to the show this spring. Martin Sheen spent five years with the soap in the late 60s, and Richard Thomas, Parker Posey, James Earl Jones, Marisa Tomei, Ming-Na, Lea Solanga, Mary McDonnell, Thomas Gibson, Dana Delaney, Jason Biggs, Tamara Tunie, Steven Webber, James Van Der Beek, and Courtney Cox all spent time in ATWT's Oakdale.

Perhaps a more impressive item, though, is the woman who remained with the show throughout its 54 year run. I wrote about actress Helen Wagner when she died a few months ago; she achieved a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as having played the same role longer than any other performer in television history. She uttered the first words spoken on ATWT ("good morning, dear"), and she was performing live on the show when Walter Cronkite cut into the program to announce the assassination of JFK.

It was a tragedy that her death came so close to the ending of ATWT, as the plan was to have her character, matriarch Nancy Hughes, utter the final words of the series.

As The World Turns is going out with a little bit of glory. Though its final episode will air tomorrow, production actually ceased months ago, on Wednesday, June 23rd. Four days after the final scenes were shot, and the sets were dismantled, and the show was officially history, the cast of ATWT swept the Daytime Emmys, winning HALF of the drama performance awards. Obviously, the show was not cancelled for artistic reasons. At the Emmys, there was a very brief salute to the show, but because production had ceased, Proctor & Gamble did not foot the bill to fly their full cast and crew to Vegas to attend the ceremony. As far as they were concerned, this 54-year chapter of their corporate life was over.

The final Emmy tally for As The World Turns can not yet be counted. The past several months of the show will be eligible for Emmy consideration at next year's awards, and it's entirely possible that, though the show will have been long gone, the dynamic writing, directing, and acting the company has delivered in its final months will be recognized with more awards. I would not be surprised if one of those nominations will be for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction/Set Decoration/Scenic Design, as the production designer for the series (the guy responsible for the "look" of the show) is my college buddy Pat Howe. Pat joined ATWT in time to be nominated for the Emmy in 2000, and has been nominated every year but one ever since (hey Patrick, what did you do wrong in 2003?). He has won the Emmy six out of the past 10 years, a spectacular achievement which, I hope, leads him to bigger and better gigs.

If you've made it this far, you must be wondering what kind of lunatic goes on and on about a soap opera. Well, you're kind of right. But I have an emotional attachment to this particular show which can be traced back to my mother's womb.

My mother was a life-long soap-opera hater; though she spent most of her adult life as a housewife (oops, I mean "domestic engineer"), the last thing she would ever want to do was spend time during the day watching these silly programs. When I became aware of soap operas, in my teens, she would roll her eyes and wonder how an otherwise intelligent kid could be so interested in such claptrap.

But she confessed to me that, for three months, she was a regular viewer of As The World Turns. In April of 1956, she had a toddler at home and a baby on the way, and back then, pregnant ladies were not expected to do much. So, in the later months of her pregnancy, she turned on the TV out of boredom, and watched As The World Turns during its first months on the air. She may even have witnessed Helen Wagner's early morning greeting on the very first episode. In July, once I was born, she flicked off the TV and, figuratively speaking, never turned it on again. But maybe that introduction to soap operas in utero is one of the reasons I will be mourning the death of As The World Turns. Its final episode, #13,858, airs tomorrow.