Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hellacious Hijinks

(Satan, top, played by Gilgamesh Taggett, sings to Jerry [Matthew Wright] in "Jerry Springer: The Opera" at  the Beck Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Beck Center.)
Since my selected deities can be found on Turner Classic Movies and Mount Olympus, I personally find it hard to understand how anyone could take offense at the Rabelaisian winks that permeate "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which is at the Beck Center through April 17. Its creators, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, have found a perfect gimmick to carry the show from beginning to end - a British bird's eye view of American trash culture engaged in a merry gambol with Dante Inferno paraphernalia, all sung in faux-opera fashion. I fail to see how anyone with the slightest bit of imagination couldn't nourish a crush on the work with such a Marxian (Brothers, not Karl) spirit.

Street gangs can plie through "West Side Story" Manhattan, Nixon can sing baritone in China and Ray Walston's fey vaudevillian Satan can soft-shoe through "Damn Yankees," so there's no reason why talk-show host Jerry Springer can't do shtick with Lucifer. Some of the other wonderful conceipts include a fuck fugue sung by Satan and an African-African Jesus, a requiem performed by talk-show attendees who in reality probably never heard of one, and a tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan. The score ranges from skillful opera parody to Motown sass and Broadway pizazz.

(An earlier singing and dancing Satan: Ray Walston in "Damn Yankees.")

This is a piece fueled on perpetual chutzpah. Act I is a recreation of an archetypal episode of "The Jerry Springer Show" populated with the obligatory transsexual, a crack whore, a spanking fetishist in Baby Jane regalia and a loving fiancee who wants to be treated like an infant. It all culminates with Springer getting a taste of his own medicine: an assassin's bullet. Act II begins in Purgatory and proceeds to Hell, where Springer is blackmailed by Satan into hosting an episode of his show as a phantasmagorical TV spectacular.

From the polyester sheen of the divinely tawdry wigs to the authentic holes in the fishnet stockings, Beck Center has perfectly simulated the squalor that gives the work verisimilitude. The tiny Studio Theater is an ideal simulacrum of a cramped TV studio in B-movie Hell. Director Scott Spence has had the perspicacity to collect a passel of golden-throated singers who so effortlessly imitate the denizens of your local Walmart. And once again choreographer Martin Cespedes shows his flair for using movement to reveal the psyche of his performers, including that chorus of terpsichorean KKKers. He knows where misapplied polish would not only be superfluous, but also would damage the texture so essential to the show.

As the eponymous Springer, Matthew Wright has the timing of a Borscht Belt comedian and far more elegance and charisma than the original ever could imagine. The colorfully named Gilgamesh Taggett plays Satan as the ultimate pimp gone wild.  The cast is so convincing that it's hard to believe that the actors have not spent their entire lives in preparation being spanked, pole dancing and taking master courses in spousal abuse. Even perfect were the two bedraggled protesters outside the Beck Center.

The show is not to be mistaken with the long line of "Little Shop of Horrors"-inspired bubble-gum musical parodies that have proliferated off-Broadway. Instead, some wizards have given it a brain, a heart and the courage to thrive.

"Jerry Springer: The Musical" runs through Sunday, April 17 at the Beck Center. For tickets, call 216- 521-2540.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Church of Horton Foote

(Lizan Mitchell, left, is Carrie and Howard W. Overshown plays her son, Ludie, in the Cleveland Play House production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.) 

So far, the Cleveland Play House season has reveled in gaudy, synthetic trinkets worthy of a Times Square souvenir shop. But now it's time to toss out the hallelujahs and pour the holy wine, for this institution has rediscovered its footing by conducting a life-affirming journey through Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful."

For many decades, the late Foote developed into one of our finest Chekhov-inspired regionalists, along with William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Whereas his two cohorts chronicle the melancholic crushing of sensitive souls - think Blanche in the asylum or Lola mourning her lost youth - Foote long exuded the overpowering gentleness of a yarn-spinning Unitarian minister. His forte in such works as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies" and, perhaps most archetypically, "Bountiful" is dramatizing how trapped people come together and reconnect with their roots and their dignity. A villain in a Foote play is as rare as a cliche in Chekhov.

"The Trip to Bountiful" first saw the light of day as an hour-long television play for the radiant Lillian Gish as Carrie, an aged country woman smothered like a famished house plant while passing her days in the urban apartment of her well-meaning son and daughter-in-law. The work is a Whitman Sampler variation on the Odyssey as Carrie escapes the city and returns to her deserted family farm in Bountiful. Something as small as the twitter of the birds of her childhood replenishes her so that she can live the rest of her life in harmony with her family.

The Play House is making much of the fact that this is the first black production of the work. Yet the playwright's universal humanity is so pervasive that the racial tweak seems perfectly natural as directed by Timothy Douglas. Foote's beautifully tuned regional speech has the musical lilt of a Copland soundtrack, and the actors are the perfect instruments for his tender poetry. As Carrie, Lizan Mitchell scampers across the stage with the mischievous energy of a Disney chipmunk. The entire auditorium lights up along with her awe-struck face as she recalls the sweet birds of her youth.

In all of my experiences of Horton Foote on stage and screens big and small, he has proved to be the one dramatic tonic that never fails to rejuvenate.

The Cleveland Play House performs "The Trip to Bountiful" through Sunday, Feb. 27. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Another enchanted evening

(David Pittsinger as Emile and Carmen Cusack as Nellie in the national tour of "South Pacific." Photo by Craig Schwartz.)

The view back from more than half a century is an ideal span for testing certain truths, such as the enduring grandeur of "South Pacific." When the original road company of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic premiered on April 24, 1950, at Cleveland's Public Music Hall, it was a publicist's nirvana. The show managed to invade the front page of The Plain Dealer with not one, but two stories next to an article about President Truman's battle with Commies. The already-legendary composer and lyricist were in attendance to amp up the excitement. Hanna Theater manager Milton Krantz wailed to the media about the $738,000 of box-office lucre that had to be refunded to those tortured souls who couldn't score a ticket to Bali Hai.

On the home front, a family legend was founded on the story of this chronicler's 23-year-old mother, who had to view the impassioned wooings of Emile and Nellie reduced to ants from the last row of the cavernous Public Music Hall. It is a testament to the American dream that one generation later her son was able to view the same rapture just half-way back on the main floor at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. To quote from William McDermott's 1950 Plain Dealer review: "The essential thing is that this performance of 'South Pacific' is first-rate by any standard. I would put it down as the best musical show and the most suitable performance since 'Show Boat' opened here many years ago preliminary to its Broadway engagement."

The 2011 touring production, based on Bartlett Sher's acclaimed Lincoln Center staging, illuminates the lasting truths of McDermott's appraisal. Sher is too canny to alter perfection. Instead, he has simply polished every nuance to set off its perpetual sparkle. Whereas other productions of "South Pacific" through the years have been star vehicles for aging matinee idols, this one makes the show itself the center of attention. When reviewing Janet Blair in the touring production in 1950, McDermott commented that "she hasn't quite got the mettlesomeness of Mary Martin. But she has a magic of her own."

(Rodgers and Hammerstein, at rear, try to wash the first three Nellies - Mary Martin, Janet Blair and Martha Wright - out of their hair in the early 1950s. Photo by Corbis-Bettmann.)

Flash forward six decades and the opposite proves true. Carmen Cusack plays Nellie in the 2011 tour with a delightful Southern mettlesomeness that would do Martin proud. There were two Nellies to be devoutly wished for: the one that happened in 1949 at the Majestic Theatre (Martin) and the one that didn't in the film version ( Doris Day). Cusack's feisty charisma makes us temporarily forget the incandescence of Martin and the loss of Day - and helps us purge the synthetic aftertaste of Mitzi Gaynor's performance in the bizarrely hued 1958 movie. Ironically, Sher's production, with its stunning transitions, lighting and texture, is far more cinematic than Joshua Logan's adequate but stiff film realization.

(Mitzi Gaynor, performing "Honey Bun" in the 1958 movie version of "South Pacific," makes one yearn for Mary Martin or Doris Day. Photo courtesy of Green Isle Productions.)

If Paulo Szot's Broadway Emile suggested a baritonal Clark Gable, David Pittsinger's sumptous basso in the touring production suggests Boris Godunov transplanted to an island just around the corner from Bali Hai. Pittsinger, with his cosmopolitan flair, contrasts splendidly with Cusack's naive buoyancy. Pound for pound, the rest of the cast equals the felicities of their Lincoln Center counterparts. For anyone who's ever failed to comprehend the magical ability of musical theater to illuminate universal human experience, one only has to watch the smitten Nellie Forbush throw her straw hat in the air and do a cartwheel while singing "I'm in love with a wonderful guy." 

It seems like a perfect synchronicity that after 40 years, Hammerstein's protege, Stephen Sondheim, accomplished equal musical euphoria out of a much darker corner of the human psyche. In "Assassins," which Lakeland Civic Theatre  is performing in Kirtland, we have the maniacal John Wilkes Booth trying to justify his nefarious act against Abraham Lincoln. Whereas "South Pacific" is musical theater as grand storytelling, "Assassins" is musical theater as a thesis about the need for attention that drives people to kill Presidents. "Assassins" is as great as it is perverse. Unfortunately, director Martin Friedman has only one trump card in his production, Scott Esposito's Booth. In every other aspect, Friedman only manages a flicker where a conflagration is needed.

"South Pacific" runs through Sunday at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Assassins" runs through Sunday at Lakeland Community College. For tickets, call 440-525-7526.