Thursday, 16 May 2013

Dreamgirls is lively Motown song-&-dance

Sung-dialogue in quasi-lite-opera-mode was popularized in the 70’s by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar; Cats; Evita; Phantom of the Opera etc.). The genre’s most notorious variant was a 1-year Stephen Bochko t.v. show in 1990 called Cop Rock where guys and gals in blue broke out into song at homicide scenes. (I'm not kidding, lol.)

ACT’s final mount of the season, Dreamgirls, is where Superstar meets Cop Rock in a Motown music review / revue. And the Stanley Theatre show is equal to the challenge : a glitzaria of song, choreography, set, lighting, costumes and orchestra that will gladden the hearts and ears and eyes of audiences from six to 96.

Written originally in 1981 by Tom Eyen with music by Henry Krieger, it achieved mega-hit status with the 2006 movie version featuring American Idol winner Jennifer Hudson as Effie Melody White, for which she won best supporting actress awards from both the Golden Globes and Oscar. That fact is relevant to this stage re-mount because the movie extended the appeal of the show. Indeed, the opening night crowd on Granville Street had a substantial number of young people hooting and cheering along with their Boomer parents.
Backdrop : The late 50’s and early 60’s found  North American popular music awash in various influences, from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Mathis to Andy Williams to Elvis to the Kingston Trio to the Everlys and The Beach Boys. We also suffered through Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon.

What mainstream North Americans generally did not hear was the rhythm and blues of such originals as Big Momma Thornton and Little Willie John.  Along come three young women promoted by Motown genius Berry Gordy and The Supremes burst onto the stage with a whole new schtick based on glamour, glitz, and slick bodies in sequins. It’s the rise-&-fall of The Supremes and Motown that is the basis for Dreamgirls.  N.B. The music is all original. No Supremes covers at all. 
But the play does a good job as well of highlighting the tension between “pure” rhythm-&-blues music that sprang from fevered gospel roots and was being performed at iconic rooms like the Apollo Theatre in Harlem -vs- the Las Vegas showgirl stuff that Berry Gordy was pushing. “Making music” in any kind of pure creative sense was less important to him than securing pop-chart placements. If it took payola to promote his stuff or stuff the competition, those practices were rampant in the radio rock’n’roll industry.

Plot :  A New York trio, the Dreamettes, are fronted by Effie Melody White (Aurianna Angelique) and backed by Deena Jones (Karen Holness) and Lorell Robinson (Starr Domingue). They are given a break to back-up Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Hector Johnson) when Cadillac car salesman and hustler Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Daren Herbert) greases the skids. Taylor outmuscles the Dreamettes’ current manager Marty (Alvin Sanders) to become the group’s impressario, but keeps peace by bringing White’s brother C.C. (Ian Yuri Gardner) along as songwriter and mediator among these febrile personalities. 

Robinson falls in heat with “Thunder”, who’s married. For her part Effie swoons over Taylor, who beds her early on but shortly turns his affections to Deena, whom he ultimately marries. The show on this level is pure soap opera, toggling between upstage song-&-dance numbers and backstage melodrama mapping the personal politics between the performers as people and as professional players. These flips from on-stage to back-stage worked crisply at the Stanley thanks to the set and choreography.

Ejected from the group toward the end of Act 1 as overweight and too “Apollo” -- not enough “Top 10” for Taylor -- Eppie is punted for another slim performer Michelle Morris (Crystal Balint) as back-up to Deena -- in case you'd not guessed, Deena's the “cross-over” voice and sexy showgirl who is the Diana Ross clone. She has nowhere near Eppie's singing depth or power, but is competent and breathy -- values Taylor applauds more than raw singing talent. Act 2 reveals Eppie’s resurrection from rejection, her rise to personal stardom herself with a rich R&B number as "soul" starts to poll, and ultimately the reconciliation of all of these fallen-out parties to cough up a happy ending. The irony is this happens even as the reconstituted group The Dreams breaks up so all these characters can pursue their own dreams instead of a made-up one as a group.

Cast credits  : Between acts on opening night I wrote : “This is a show to go to to recall the glitz and brilliant ‘showiness’ of Motown music in its heyday.”  The plot and character development are incidental to the rock-and-roll, the dance, the “show”. Viewers will not come away with an emotional investment in any of the characters, probably, though Johnson as the James Brown knock-off “Thunder” and Domingue as his love interest Lorrell almost make us believe they’re people and not just performers. And to this viewer it is those two actors who deserve highest marks – along with Angelique as Effie – for their emotional investment on stage. 

Capable and journeyman performances by the balance of the cast and ensemble, certainly, with one curious caveat : the Curtis Taylor, Jr. character depicted by Daren Herbert. Taylor is the mover-&-shaker of these singers -- a hustler, a promoter, a bit of a racketeer with his payola shenanigans. On stage a more wooden, stiff, unblocked, unchoreographed and nearly immobile characterization so unlikely for a persona such as Taylor I could not imagine. But oh what a voice – rich, resonant, impassioned when wooing or swooning -- then unremarkable and flat when sing-talking, as if to match his stickperson immobility on stage. A real stand-out puzzler this one.

As the twice-rejected Effie – rejected both as lover and as performer – Aurianna Angelique gives power and richness bar-for-bar in all her songs, dialogue and arias, reminiscent of the gospel origins of much R&B with depth and trills and chills up the spine. Her “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is breathtaking in its pain and defiance at being dumped, the number one crowd-pleaser, surpassing even her excellent “One Night A Week” poignant showstopper in Act 2.  Oh oh oh.

Production values : ACT's version of Dreamgirls would be worth a 2nd or 3rd look for the production qualities alone. This is a “wowser”, not a “thinkster”. This is a go-see, go-hear, go-feel bonanza where Director Bill Millerd wrung absolutely every ounce and nuance of talent he could from Ted Roberts’ extraordinary set of swiveling vertical 20-foot rectangles that variously feature klieg light bars, concert posters, and spangled show backdrops. Marsha Sibthorpe’s lighting blasted against this clever set created catchy dizzle-dazzle effects of alternating reds and blues and greens. Sheila White’s costumes were thread-perfect. Favourite montage was the opening scene of Act 2 where the slinky dresses of The Dreams and the white tux slacks of the four men beneath their lime, yellow, teal and purple satin blouses were ace. Sound designer Andrew Tugwell’s mic-ing of the cast was flawless – every lyric caught without straining. Valerie Easton’s choreography was perhaps even more creative in this than it was in last season’s High Society that I adored. Brava indeed! particularly in the noted favourite montage kicking off Act 2. And last but not least, Ken Cormier’s musical direction. Tight. As noted with Easton and her gifts to last season’s High Society, Cormier’s ensemble jelled-&-excelled once again. Percussionist Graham Boyle’s performance particularly struck my ear impressively – not one single stroke sounding like a hatchet whacking up kindling that many drummers fall prey to. Terrific chops by all in the pit.

Summary : This is go-see stuff. A bit hokey & histrionic & sketchy in character, sure, but forget the storyline. These are see-hear-smell Motown moments that appeal to the viscera, not the cranium. Go just for the impact on your senses to take you out of your head for a couple of hours.


Monday, 6 May 2013

Dateline Ashland, OR :
Streetcar Named Desire is perfect tale in today's world

(N.B. Writing via wi-fi on an i-Pad from California. How this transmits to blog remains to be seen.)

The famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) produces repertory plays from Winter through Autumn every year. But Billy Bard is not all they produce. Also many other scripts from various epochs and genres, including A Streecar Named Desire by American playwright Tennessee Williams first performed in 1947 that won a Pulitzer plus other notable awards.

Lead antagonist Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins) sums up the gist of the play in his condemnation of his sister-in-law Blanche Dubois (Kate Mulligan) near the plays's climax : "Your life is nothing but imagination, lies, conceits and tricks." Ouch. Tough stuff. Another way of putting the theme more universally might be : "We all have stories we believe in about ourselves. If we cleave to them too hard, we become neurotic. No story should become virtually all there is of us ."

Watching OSF's production of Streetcar Sunday reminded me of a comrade Southerner of Williams, Kentucky novelist Walker Percy. His indelible line from Love Among The Ruins put me to tears when first I read it and does so again: "What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past -- the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of."  This is what Streetcar is all about, I think.

Blanche Dubois is the older sister of Stella Kowalski (Nell Geisslinger). Blanche has fallen on hard times. She is forced to decamp the family estate Belle Rive in Laurel, Mississippi and sets out to visit her long-distant younger sister in N'Awlins, LA where she lives with her husband Stanley in post-WW II America.

Blanche is a spinster southern belle who subscribes to the mythology of plantation life as described in Gone With The Wind. And claims such as birthright. Trouble is, Blanche is 90% phony in this respect : in truth she is a bewildered and bemused emotional waif ever since her first love of some 40 years back turned out to be a gay poet. Upon learning that Blanche has witnessed him making love to another man -- she tells him she now finds him disgusting -- he promptly runs outside the roadside dance hall they're partying at and blows his head off.

Blanche's response is to repress-repress-repress. She lands a job as a school teacher, but really her work is to take local soldiers encamped in Laurel, Mississippi to bed -- some presumably for money, others just buck shee.  Her closing comment in the play of "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" takes on considerably more poignance in light of this info that emerges during the play. Including the fact that her teaching career ended abruptly when she tried to seduce a teen-age pupil.

To appreciate ASND, one needs to celebrate how much irony, paradox and ambiguity inform human conduct. Not only is it the case that "nothing is as it appears", but also that much of Western human conduct is predicated on projection  -- claiming objectionable behaviour by others that really is little more than denying their own self-same shortcomings. There's also the fecundity of Southern writing : one surely feels that culture through Williams's well-wrought words, but we also smell, it, touch it, taste it as only Bourbon Street life can induce. "Thinking" about life in the manner of, say, a Philip Roth (Portnoy's Complaint) is a wholly secondary experience if it occurs with these folks at all.

As well, Streetcar is the perfect antidote for today's social media phenomena that rely on "instantaneity" for entree to life's meaning. Not this script. It's 150 minutes of investigation, development and expansion -- psychologically -- of people who, serially, are victim-believers of their times, their genders, and their moral confusion.  Good luck trying to discuss such stuff with your typical teen-age Facebook Twitterer in 2013.

Backstory:  Elder sister Blanche has lost the family plantation due to misfeasance thus foreclosure. She has also been ushered out of Laurel due to the myriad johns she has enticed into the semi-respectiable Flamingo Hotel where she's taken  up lodgings -- all this unknown to sister Stella until Stanley's "acquaintances" cough up this up late in the play. Meanwhile Blanche has parachuted herself into Stella and Stanley's flat in NO as if she's on a short furlough, is all.  Immediately Stanley and Blanche magnetize in their dislike of one another : he thinks her cheap; she calls him Polak though he's 1st generation proud and swaggering, beer-swilling poker-playing WW II vet.

Blanche exposes herself and her simple complexity with these kinds of statements : "People have to tolerate each other's habits, I guess." "Money is the way out." "Who knows what the dark march is toward whatever it is we're approaching." "When people are soft they have to shimmer...I'm fading now, I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick." "I don't want realism, I want magic." "I had many intimacies with strangers -- it was all I was able to fill my heart with."  "Death's opposite is desire." Blanche flirts with everything, be it pants, mirror, or memory.

Mulligan succumbed to a bit of shrill predictability in Act 1 scolding her sister and parading her false southern belle persona, but she became progressively more convincing in her dreamscape delusions in the 2nd an 3rd acrs. A gutsy performance indeed.

As Stanley, Danforth Comins was just the right mix of macho grunting over card games with his buddies to his pushy insistences with Blanche to his crude tumescence with willing wife Stella. His rape of Blanche  -- or possibly co-seduction -- as his wife gave birth to their daughter was, of course, shocking but hardly a surprise given Tennessee Williams' character portraits.

Suitor Mitch (Jeffrey King) played the Mr. Sincere Naive role with nuance and great sensitivity. Convincing and capable support by the rest of the Streetcar entourage, too.

But it was Geisslinger as Stella who stole this reviewer's heart with her action as the younger sister always having to apologize for and protect and accommodate her older impaired but still-lovable sibling, the delusional and alcoholic Blanche. At curtain call -- after just finishing a most heart-rending scene with repeated eruptions of "What have I done to my sister?" as Blanche is taken away to an asylum that caught my throat and heart and eye -- Geisslinger came on stage wiping a tear from her face. I don't think it was sweat. She had just aced a dramatic climax that she lived, not merely "acted" a la the Meryl Streep school.

On the production values side of the ledger, Director Christopher Liam Moore wrung from each actor every ounce of blood, sweat and tears he was able and all to good effect. Set and lighting by scene designer  Christopher Acebo include a clever and impressionistic rendition of New Orleans iron railing lanais and spiral staircases that adorn even the most humble walk-up flats, with mood-lighting to suit perfectly.

The backdrop of sharp brass and muted coronet riffs by composer/sound designer Andre J. Pluess  captures nicely the jazzy NO soundscape, but quite frankly the periodic steam-engine chug-a-chug-a interpolations between certain Stella/Blanche scenes fretted my aural nerve quite painfully. Ashland being this close to San Francisco, where-oh-where was the familiar clank-rattle-clang of streetcar clatter instead -- in keeping literally and figuratively with the Tenessee Williams script, motif and theme? A real puzzler that lapse.

That closing quibble aside, folks traveling through Cascadia this season will enjoy a profound theatrical evening with Streetcar in Ashland that is worth every ducat. To take some moments to reflect on what the personal stories we inflict and insist upon in life -- and what role they play in our destiny -- is always worthwhile.