Thursday, 28 April 2016

Facing East musical challenges LGBTQ biases
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  "Musical", the word, makes one think of Cats, Fighting Chance Production's last lyrical effort that commanded repeat sold-out houses at Jericho late this winter. As follow-up, by contrast, put the following four concepts together and some cognitive dissonance will instantly clang forth : Mormonism. Gay. Suicide. Musical.

But such is the stuff of Facing East. It uses percussion, piano, cello and guitar to provide instrumental backdrop to a libretto based on 4th generation Mormon Carol Lynn Pearson's play of the same name. The title relates to the Judaeo-Christian tradition for worshippers to face east when praying : to greet the end of darkness (evil) as the sun's light heralds re-birth (salvation).

A middle-age couple are graveside at the funeral for their 24-year-old son Andrew who suicided because he is gay. Andrew's lover attends the gravesite to mourn his fallen mate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) does not smile benignly on such couplings. When Mom and Dad circle by one last time, together they trigger through flashback how the social / personal / religious cacophony of values were being played out in Salt Lake City in the 00's of this century.

How it's all put together :  Mormon policy on homosexuality is, arguably, an offshoot of the U.S. Military's old "Don't ask, don't tell" doctrine of suppression. As in : "We know it's out there. But it's a sin. Still, God loves sinners, too. And so we love them as well -- as long as they don't interact sexually. They'll be excommunicated from LDS if they do. But if they just hang in there with God, they'll find release from what possesses their souls."

Thus not hard to see how anyone gay trying to remain a practicing Mormon would of necessity be morally conflicted to their core. Andrew (Jesse Alvarez) has sought both real and symbolic escape by suiciding in the garden outside Temple Square that surrounds the iconic Mormon Tabernacle. His lover Marcus (Matt Montgomery) absented himself from the funeral to not offend his parents Alex (Francis Boyle) and Ruth (Mandana Namazi). 

Through sung dialogue, the exclusion of gays in LDS is explored across the show's 85 minutes of solos, duets, & trios. Ruth stands by her church : better dead, son Andrew, than him solemnize his love for Marcus. Alex is not so sure : maybe LDS should be forsaken, not his son. Marcus has his own revelation : "I don't do it much but when I pray, I know God loves me and I am gay!" Unlike wretched Andrew who is not welcome in the Tabernacle choir. Relegated instead to the closet where the choir's robes are shut away.

What this show brings to the stage :  As described by musical directors Steven Greenfield and Clare Wyatt, what you will hear is not a show styled after traditional fare like Sound of Music. Instead, they say, "Facing East is effectively a musical without songs, but rather a musical (dialogic) rhapsody on the theme of love and reconciliation" that is taken from "a world of complexity and chromaticism", i.e. where all 12 white + black keys in an octave are brought into play creating a series of semi-tones that are not harmonic in the usual sense. (Though some baroquish and Sondheim-y sounds as well.)

The theme and sub-text are not overtly anti-Mormon. The dramatic tension comes from one's upbringing in a particular belief-system that dominates the local culture. And if that community is gay-averse, regardless what the abiding ethos is -- Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Zamboni -- a gay person is going to be utterly isolated and cut adrift from all their neighbours' more comfortable and secure moorings.

Ruth blames Alex for causing her to cling too tightly to Andrew as her youngest child which, she concludes, "made" Andrew gay. Alex does a popular radio show a la "Father Knows Best" entitled "One Minute Dad" where he doles out syrupy banalities and bromides about how to be a gooderer parent. [E.g. slip a note in your kid's lunch. It is to say -- gag me with a spoon had I ever got such a one -- "Do you know how proud I am of you just the way you are?"] At the start Alex confesses "I'm a picture of confusion at the end of the day" over his son's death. By show's end he realizes he's been a classic hypocrite : worrying more about writing radio pepsins for parents rather than being a true Dad to Andrew.

Ruth evinces some of the most poignant singing / lyrics of the night. She used to play cello, but can no more due to a car accident. Early a.m. she sends Alex off to work, then finishes the day late p.m. next to him in bed : "We kiss in silence, then I close the door -- and live in silence all the day... / He turns away, I click the light and sit in darkness, another perfect ending to another silent day." 

Production values that hi-lite the action : Clearly it's the mix of libretto by Mark-Eugene Garcia coupled with the composition by David Rigano that drive the dramatic tenor,  krappy pun acknowledged, of the play. The characters are in a way stock : the overly-strict mother, the somewhat aloof father adrift in his world of words, the happy-snappy siblings in whose shadow the conflicted, depressing, liberating and light world of youngest son Andrew in love with Marcus becomes "something bad that was closing in" that no one seemed to see, quite.

Producer Nathan Gardner revealed that original playwright Carol Lynn Pearson is plumping to have Facing East / a new musical have its professional debut in Salt Lake City, not, say, San Francisco where the culture would surely embrace the show's themes robustly. F.w.i.w. I agree with Pearson : as my daughter pointed out with great insight on the drive home, "Andrew was utterly isolated. He grew up in a culture that excluded him. There was no society of others like him to support his needs. And Marcus, whose family did support and embrace his lifestyle, he didn't know how to respond to Andrew's isolation."

The 800 square foot Jericho Arts Centre stage was plenty big for this show. Set designers Tim Driscoll and [FCP artistic director] Ryan Mooney created a series of mini-sets to represent a swack of sites : the McCormick family kitchen; Andrew's bedroom and cello rehearsal space; dad Alex's radio booth; upcountry cabin; graveyard; Marcus's crash-pad; local coffee house.  Lighting designer Nicole Weismiller used mostly spots to focus on the individual actors as they performed their solos, but also well-aimed floods when the folks grouped. 

As for the orchestrations, oh this is quite the music to be treated to. An absolute sucker for the melancholic strains of the cello, I found the arrangements & orchestrations of same by Adam Wright plus Daniel Klintworth grabbed my ear all night long thanks to the excellence of Alex Hauka on that heavenly instrument. But strong well-tempered performances by all!

Acting pin-spots : Daughter's take was Andrew was "best". She empathized with his utter isolation in Salt Lake City's culture. She "hated" Mom Ruth. I challenged whether that might be because of compelling acting. She thought maybe so. Both Dad Alex and Marcus gave terrific voice to their also-lonely, isolated selves, we agreed. In a word, fine capable performances by each and all even if trying to keep in pitch with the chromatic stylings was surely a challenge.

Who gonna like :  Harper / Trumpster / Calgarian Cruz-er troglodytes will happily give this a miss. Why waste insight and sensitivity on folks whose moral scar-tissue would resist the slightest balm from a script that preaches reconciliation over gay exclusion. [Though, trite to observe, they potentially could learn the most from it.] 

Theatre fans who want a challenging and compelling evening of music "rhapsody" whose strains are quite unlike normal stage musical fare to underscore the show's themes will delight in the complexities. This is a play destined for boutique stages across the land. LGBTQ issues are evermore complex : the "one step at a time" leitmotif of this show says it all [if, I might add, however, stated just ever-so-slightly too often].  

In all, Congratulations! deserved for further proof that creative! imaginative! challenging! theatre is in good hands in Fighting Chance Productions. The next generation of pro's out there are demanding all of us stretch our usual comfy boundaries. No question they are doing so with limitless zest & vigour & passion. 

Particulars :  Presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Nathan Gardner & Danny Brooke. At the Jericho Arts Centre. Through May14th. Show and season info @ Fighting Chance Productions

Production team : Director Ryan Mooney.  Producer Nathan Gardner.  Associate Producer Danny Brooke. Music Directors Steven Greenfield & Clare Wyatt.  Stage Manager Ziggy Shutz.  Lighting Designer Nicole Weismiller.  Set Designer Tim Driscoll & Ryan Mooney.  Orchestrations Daniel Klintworth & Adam Wright.

Orchestra : Conductor / Piano Clare Wyatt.  Cello Alex Hauka.  Guitar Adrian Sowa.  Percussion Jamison Ko. 

Performers :  Jesse Alvarez (Andrew).  Francis Boyle (Alex).  Matt Montgomery (Marcus).  Mandana Namazi (Ruth).  

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