DramaWatch: A vintage Storm

Ten years after, Storm Large's short-run revival of "Crazy Enough" blows even stronger. Plus: Drammys Monday, openings, summer tips.

Around 2002 or 2003, not long after Storm Large had moved to Portland and started to establish herself as a local cultural phenom, several friends told me I had to go to the Old Town nightclub Dante’s to hear this amazing rock singer. During those days, I was the staff pop-music critic for The Oregonian, so I dutifully went to see what the buzz was about. Within a couple of minutes I could tell what had people talking: a tall, good-looking woman with a commanding stage presence and a voice as big and pliant as her attitude was bold and defiant.

Yet I wasn’t won over. Her vocal talent and charisma were undeniable. But the brash, bawdy Amazon-sex-goddess persona that had folks howling her praise? Meh, not interested.

Storm Large performs with (L to R) Greg Eklund (Drums) and Matthew Brown (Bass) in Crazy Enough. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

A few years later, in the fall of 2007, she starred in a Portland Center Stage production of Cabaret and I began to take a larger view, you might say. Her vocal chops extended beyond rock’n’roll belting, and she could convey emotional shades that weren’t evident in the bluster of Storm and the Balls. 

After that, I got to know her a bit socially through mutual friends. One friend of mine once told me, “All my friends were always going on about Storm Large this and Storm Large that, all about how great she is, and I just thought, yeah, whatever. Until I started hanging out with her.” That was my experience as well. That loud, wild, raunchy, Larger-than-life persona is no fake, but it shares space with many other dimensions.

And what really showed the wonders of the multi-dimensional Storm was Crazy Enough, the theatrical/musical memoir she created for Portland Center Stage with the help of director Chris Coleman. A vivid recollection of growing up amidst the shadows of a family history of mental illness, the show was by turns hilarious, harrowing, heartbreaking and triumphant. Originally scheduled for a two-month stint in the theater’s basement studio, it wound up running from April to August, the run-away theater hit of 2009.

Now it’s back for a brief 10-anniversary engagement, which opened Tuesday. At last check, a few seats remain for the final shows through Sunday — this time it’s on the much larger Armory mainstage.

And just as it did a decade ago, it feels like getting to hang out with Storm and get to know her, to not only feel the power of her personality but hear the story of her life.

Coleman, the now-departed PCS artistic director, was instrumental is conceiving and shaping the show, but though this remount doesn’t credit a director (presumably the star and her musical director/songwriting partner James Beaton knew it deeply enough to recreate it on their own), it still feels tight and well-paced. In both a Sunday dress-rehearsal and Tuesday’s opening night, Large’s delivery felt a bit rushed at the outset but soon settled into a compelling rhythm. Besides, the more striking immediate impression was that she’s actually singing even better than she did a decade ago, her rock’n’roll power undiminished and the varied experience of Pink Martini tours and symphony guest-star appearances showing in the nuances of textural and tonal control.

As an actor, too, she inhabits the story with impressive ease and naturalness, whether bounding around the stage with the guileless energy of her six-year-old self, adopting the exaggerated professional cadences of doctors and therapists, or most affectingly, dropping into the drowsy hell of her time as a heroin addict in 1990s San Francisco. The detail in the writing is often a delight: her mother’s characteristic smell of Lily of the Valley perfume and menthol cigarettes, the ka-chunk and squeak of a mental hospital’s security door, a ceramic cat with a tiny butthole painted on it, the solace of a “sweet purple sleep” amid the horrors of heroin detox. 

Storm Large: hurricane alert. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Even structural jumps that seem disjunctive at first soon pay off, such as when she follows comic memories of childhood werewolf fantasies with her determination at 12 or 13 to not only lose her virginity but to quickly learn to be “a dick whisperer.” As different as the sound, both are evocations of something primal, and both reflect her yearning for power in an out-of-control life.

After all, the true power source of the show isn’t in her vaunted status as a strong woman (simultaneously celebrated and satirized in the sing-along favorite “8 Miles Wide” — as in, “My vagina is…”). It’s in her emotional acuity and openness, as both writer and performer. 

Around the time of the 2009 opening, Large told me in an interview for The Oregonian that she’d originally turned down Coleman’s suggestion that she make a show about her own life. “Who wants to hear me whine about my sick mom and my sad life?”

“You were afraid your story would be too much of a downer?,” I asked. 

“Well, my dad was a Marine, and so when I was growing up, showing emotion was seen as being weak. You don’t want to bum people out and bring people down. I want to see myself doing something productive and inspiring.” 

Believe me, she is.


DRAMMY CELEBRATION


Once again it’s time to crown the champions of Portland theater!

Just kidding.

One of the recurring sources of complaint/skepticism about awards shows, of course, is that art — subjective, emotional and nuanced as it ideally is — can’t really be a competition. The Drammy Awards, as with others of its ilk, make the counter-argument that they don’t pit artworks or artists against one another, they simply make choices in order to honor an (admittedly subjective) ideal of quality.

Carla Rossi will host Monday’s Drammy Awards party.

Then there’s that other compelling argument: Forget winners and losers. Let’s party!

The Portland theater community’s favorite night to dress up and throw down, the annual Drammy Awards presentation arrives a little later than usual this year, set for Monday at the Armory. (Lobby opens at 6 p.m., ceremony kicks off at 7.) But as always it promises a chance to see and be seen, to reconnect with friends, and to celebrate at least a little of the great work that’s been done over the past season. 

And “crown” might be the operative word in any case. By my casual count of the 2018-19 Drammy finalists, the show in the running for the most awards is Crowns, the musical celebration of African-American women’s culture and fine hats, as staged at Portland Playhouse. Other shows that impressed the Drammy selection committee (a mixture of theater artists, critics and aficionados) include a Fuse Theatre Ensemble production of Cabaret, Portland Playhouse’s Fences, and — one of my favorites among what I saw this season — the Broadway Rose chamber musical Ordinary Days. 

As anyone would, I have my own skepticism about the finalist list (no mention of Radiant Vermin, the devilish satire of consumerism presented last fall at CoHo?!) But that’s one of the great things about art: Whoever takes home the trophy, we each get to choose the champion of our own tastes.


OPENING


CoHo Clown Cohort: Sascha Blocker, Amica Hunter, Emily Newton, Maureen Porter, and Jeff Desautels. Photo: Kevin Young/Neverland Images 

Director Philip Cuomo has been working a rich vein of material of late with a series of devised-theater shows that use the techniques of clown comedy to riff on dramatic classics. The latest is Witch Hunt, in which Cuomo’s CoHo Clown Cohort explores — in its madcap, fragmentary fashion — themes and imagery from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. A developmental trial run in January’s Fertile Ground festival showed plenty of promise, and the cast for this go-round once again features the redoubtable Maureen Porter and the comedic powerhouse Emily Newton.

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If an open-mic night can work for, say, blues singers, why not for actors? With that notion in mind,  Torchsong Theater Company and Experience Theatre Project host a Shakespeare Open-Mic Night on the lawn of the Beaverton City Library. (Actually, it’s more of an open-mic afternoon — just 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.) Brush up and bust out your favorite scene or soliloquy; just keep your bit to five minutes or less. Or just come and watch the fun. 

That event will be a part of the new Westside Shakespeare Festival, anchored by a production of The Comedy of Errors directed by the esteemed NW theater veteran Brenda Hubbard. The weekend sports two stages with  actors from Bag & Baggage, Action/Adventure Theatre and other companies presenting varied scenes, plus madrigal singers, Renaissance dancers, sword-fighting demonstrations and so on. All that’s free, plus there’ll be a ticketed gala on Saturday night featuring spit-roasted pig.

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A summer evening is a fine time to release your inner swashbuckler, especially with Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a high-energy take on the legendary rebel with a cause, adapted by the comic playwright Ken Ludwig (best-known for the Tony-winning Lend Me a Tenor). Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents the play’s Northwest premiere with a pair of the area’s most engaging actors in key roles: John San Nicolas as Robin Hood, and Todd Van Voris as Friar Tuck.

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The long-running partnership between Oregon Children’s Theatre and Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program has yielded some valuable work over the years, digging into health-related issues in an engaging, relatable way. While much of the work has been youth-focused, the Intergenerational Queer Theatre Project, now in its third year, “brings together queer people with various levels of performing experience between the ages of 18 and 80 to to devise an original theatre performance,” directed by Jessica Wallenfels. It’s at 2 p.m. Saturday at OCT’s YP Studio, 1939 N.E. Sandy Blvd.


ADVANCE PLANNING


It’s summer. You have places to go, things to do. And though — of course! — theater is the priority, perhaps you want to plan ahead in order to fit in a few of those lesser activities such as vacations. Here are some of the noteworthy shows coming later in July. 

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Wicked

July 10-28

Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.

Perhaps the most bewitching and beloved of 21st-century musicals, this distant cousin of The Wizard of Oz packs surprising substance beneath bright, bubbly surfaces, as it relates a revisionist story of the green-skinned girl who will be known as the Wicked Witch of the West. Soaring, pop-savvy songs, the spectacular staging of a touring Broadway production, and a story of friendship predominate, yet an intriguing inquiry into ethics and society (a legacy of the Gregory Maguire novel from which the musical was adapted) lurks within. 

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My Little China Girl

July 11-14

CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St.

CoHo’s artist-focused programming makes it one of the city’s best small theaters year-round, but summer brings out its playfully experimental side. For example: performance artist Soomi Kim’s multidisciplinary look at her own 1980s coming-of-age story, complete with teen angst, MTV, conflicting cultural messages and the wonders of David Bowie.

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Much Ado About Nothing

July 11-28

The Vault Theater, 350 E. Main St., Hillsboro

Using an approach introduced by director Gordon Barr at Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics, Bag & Baggage brings gender fluidity to one of Shakespeare’s most enduring comedies, with a love story that matches Benedick not with Beatrice but with Bertram.

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Matilda

July 12-Aug. 18

Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 S. State St., Lake Oswego

Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then, you’ll likely relate to the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. Villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis.  

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JAW

July 26-28

Portland Center Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.

A summer highlight for theater aficionados (or, really, for anyone interested in the creative process), Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights’ festival celebrates and supports the painstaking craft of writing for the stage. Following more than a week of intensive work by writers, actors and directors, a weekend of free staged readings lets the public in on exciting works in progress, plays that frequently go on to popular productions around the country. This year’s slate includes an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, a solo show about the father of the diarist Anne Frank, an examination of human value through the lens of human bondage, a set of short works by select high-school students, and even an audience-participation playwrights’ slam.


CLOSING


Gerrin Mitchell, Charles Grant, Shareen Jacobs in Fuse Theatre’s OUTwright Festival Bootycandy.

Time is running out on Bootycandy, by the ever-adventurous Fuse Theatre Ensemble; the Broadway Rose production of Sondheim’s masterly musical fairytale Into the Woods, directed by Jessica Wallenfels; and, of course, Storm Large in Crazy Enough at Portland Center Stage.


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“We can count on nothing but integrity. Every trick leads to another. A blunder is preferable. The anonymous public boos at it, but forgives us. Tricks give themselves away in the long run. The public turns away with the blank expression of a woman who once loved but loves no longer.”

– Jean Cocteau, on creative process, in an essay from “The Difficulty of Being.”


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