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DramaWatch: Harold Hill, down to the basics

Isaac Lamb stages his "dream show," a gathering for Tim Stapleton, a pair of Shakespeare festivals, singing cats, openings, closings & more.

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Crystal Ann Muñoz is traveling salesman Harold Hill and Dru Rutledge is local librarian Marian Paroo in a new, small-cast version of “The Music Man.” Photo: Owen Carey

“I’ve been dreaming about this for seven years,” says Isaac Lamb, at long last on the verge of presenting his passion project. Lamb has been a major figure in Portland theater for years, largely as an actor with the forward-thinking Third Rail Rep but increasingly as a director of dramatically low-key but emotionally rich “chamber musicals” such as Once. So what bit of theatrical daring has he been waiting so long, working so hard to bring to fruition?

The Music Man!

Yes, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, the oft-produced Broadway hit that has often seemed to many folks – even when it premiered nearly 65 years ago – old-fashioned and corny.

But even though the show has maintained critical respect as well as classic status all through the decades – and is doing good business back on Broadway these days with a big, brassy production starring Hugh Jackman – Lamb, directing the show for Third Rail, has something much less conventional in mind.

“I don’t see the point of doing a traditional revival of The Music Man,” Lamb says, talking recently by phone. “You can see that in high schools all across America.”

Instead, Lamb is taking The Music Man back to the Before Times. Not the times before the Covid-19 pandemic – though his show is one of many that was delayed by that global disruption – but to the times before The Music Man ever made it to Broadway to begin with.

“I was inspired by reading in Willson’s autobiography about how he got it produced,” Lamb says. “When he was trying to raise the money for it, he and his wife would go to these producers’ houses and play the whole show for them, song by song, on the piano, singing all the different parts between the two of them.”

Imagining what those early pitching-meeting performances must have been like reminded Lamb of his childhood. “The Porter family was just such a musical family,” he says. Lamb is the nephew of Maureen Porter (one of the city’s finest actors and the managing artistic director of Third Rail), and family gatherings often featured spontaneous music-making, with folks singing and grabbing whatever instruments were at hand. Lamb loved the slapdash yet spirited nature of those times. And it occurred to him that a stripped-down, small-cast approach to The Music Man, kept “imaginative and playful … might get at the heart of what it’s about.”

As for the stripped-down approach, Lamb – with help from transcriber Mont Chris Hubbard and musical director Stephanie Smith – has retooled the show for a cast of just six (rather than the 20 or so usually required for a full-scale rendition) and rearranged the music for instruments ranging from piano and accordion to ocarina, played by the actors onstage instead of by a pit band.

Lamb describes the six as “a delightfully diverse cast of women and nonbinary performers,” but there’s no identity-politics subtext behind that choice. Around the time he started formulating his Music Man plan, he tried to cast all women for another musical, simply because he was selecting the best performers from the auditions. Told that he couldn’t because that would be too political, “that idea collided with this idea. So I decided I’ll do it with all women just to prove that it doesn’t have to be a political act. If we’re utilizing the basic ingredient of theater – the audience’s imagination – what does it matter what the gender of the performer is? You can play the mayor, and in the next moment you can play the mayor’s wife. That can be just another way of us saying, ‘Come, take this ride with us!’”

One likely benefit of that choice is that he’ll have the wonderful but too-seldom-seen Crystal Ann Muñoz in the role of Harold Hill, the titular con artist who drums up fervor for starting a band, so that he can sell uniforms and instruments before skipping town. As Harold’s antagonist/love interest Marian Paroo, this production boasts Dru Rutledge, possessor of one of the city’s finest musical-theater voices. 

As for the heart of what The Music Man is about, Lamb see it as both sweeter and more meaningful than it usually gets credit for being. “There’s something progressive about it that doesn’t often get recognized,” he says. “The story is ultimately about how this man – almost mistakenly – changes this little town, or maybe re-acquaints it with itself. It’s about how music and art can reconnect them with their community and with their lives.

“The story is pointing out something about art and making art. There’s this pop-culture idea that it has to be precise and have gloss and shine. But that’s not what art in a community is about. The story ends with a performance of music that’s played really badly, but it doesn’t matter because the people are so happy and really have been brought together by it. What matters is that we’re musical creatures and we should play music together.” 

 “It’s a crazy time to be producing theater,” he adds. “Covid has not left us, so we’re being safe and cognizant. But we’re so happy to be doing this, and I think that’s going to be the takeaway: that we’re in a room making music together, contributing a little bit of joy and community and lightness. Let’s come back together and remember why we love each other. And then we can get back to asking harder questions when we get our legs back.”

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

In memoriam

Tim Stapleton, in 2013. Photo: Owen Carey

Sept. 7, 2020 was a dark day for Portland theater. Amid the depth of the Covid pandemic, with wildfire smoke turning the very air into a menace, news came of the death of Tim Stapleton, prolific scenic designer, painter, writer, actor, teacher, mentor and friend. Stapleton died, at age 71, of ALS (often called “Lou Gehrig’s disease), three and a half years after being diagnosed with the debilitating motor neuron condition.

At long last, a gathering to celebrate Stapleton’s life and accomplishments is being held Saturday afternoon (June 18), from 2 to 5 p.m., at Shaking the Tree Theatre. Along with the snacks and stories and a show of still and moving images (no doubt still moving), the results will be announced from an online auction of Stapleton’s paintings, drawing and design sketches (auction bidding closes at noon on Friday, June 17). Auction proceeds will help create a scholarship in Stapleton’s honor at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Otis. 

Opening

Traditions have to start somewhere. So Grant Turner’s plan for the Opera House Shakespeare Festival to become a fixture on the Northwest arts calendar sounds like worthy aspiration. Turner, formerly the artistic director of Portland’s (now defunct) Northwest Classical Theatre, has the advantage of built-in infrastructure at the Elgin Opera House, a 110-year-old cultural hub in Northeastern Oregon.

And the lineup for the 10-day inaugural event certainly looks promising: productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello (with Portland stalwart and esteemed ArtsWatch contributor Bobby Bermea in the title role) and The Merchant of Venice; plus a Q&A with acclaimed British actress Imogen Stubbs, Shakespeare workshops, parties and more.

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Grace Chan Ng and William Thomas Hodgson in “The Tempest” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham

Speaking of traditions, the giant of Northwest theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, moves outdoors this weekend. Well, sort of: the Allen Elizabethan Theatre does have walls and doors, just not a roof. In any case, that august stage where it all got started back in 1935 will host the Bard’s masterly late Romance The Tempest, directed by Nicholas C. Avila and starring the terrific OSF veteran Kevin Kenerly as Prospero. Also on the Elizabethan’s summer docket is Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation, a musical-comedy-adventure spectacle by Qui Nguyen, Robert Ross Parker and Shane Rettig.

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Umm…Cats. Splashy Broadway touring production. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. So, uh, if you like that kind of thing… 

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Playwright/novelist/humorist Marc Acito has long since decamped for New York City, but back in 2009, when he workshopped Birds of a Feather at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, he was a Portlander, and his early work for the stage had been produced at Artists Rep. Acito has gone on to write for other regional theaters and Broadway; Birds, a touching comedy inspired by a bonded pair of male penguins raising a chick together at the Central Park Zoo, later won a nod as  Outstanding New Play from Washington, D.C.’s Helen Hayes Awards. Now – coming home to roost in a nicer way than that phrase usually means – the play is back in Oregon with a production at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater.

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Not so much a play as a theatricalized documentary, Don Wilson Glenn’s Walking Through Portland With a Panther tells the story of Kent Ford, a civil rights activist and Black Panther member in the 1960s. Damaris Webb directs the always-engaging La’Tevin Alexander in a co-production by Vanport Mosaic and Confrontation Theatre.

One night only

School’s out, but the work goes on for the members of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals, whose improv-comedy contingent has a show to do. Impulse XV: Summer Celebration promises “a fair amount of Dad jokes in honor of Father’s Day,” but otherwise should be as fresh as if it was invented on the spot. Which it will be.

Closing

Most plays that get produced by any theater of significant reputation in America have been written, re-written, workshopped, tweaked, re-written again, lathered, rinsed, repeated, etc. Imago Theatre isn’t “any theater,” however. Its significant reputation is built on an unusual operating model, in which rigorously honed, often family-targeted, productions have provided enough income (between national touring and occasional home stands) to allow for a regular diet of quick-hit experimentation. The shows that come out of that latter approach are highly idiosyncratic, often delightfully daring, sometimes puzzlingly elliptical. Julia’s Place, the latest piece written and directed by Imago co-founder Jerry Mouawad, is a bit of all those things, though perhaps not in the optimal balance this time.

From left: Josh Edward is Porkchop, Noel Olken is Ralph, and Carol Triffle is Julia, owner of a cheap Italian restaurant, in Imago’s “Julia’s Place.” Photo: Myrrh Larsen

A philosophical comedy full of loopy language knots (lots of dialogue concerns improbable varieties of spaghetti that may or may not be available at the Kafkaesque titular restaurant) leavened with bits of antic physicality and rampaging (yes, that’s the word) shadow puppetry, Julia’s Place uses Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – in which townsfolk, willing victims of a sort of social contagion, turn into huge horned beasts – as a kind of reference point and backdrop.

But the tension here isn’t about whether the protagonist, a beleaguered quasi-clown called Porkchop, turns big and gray, and the implications aren’t political, as Ionesco’s were. Instead we get humorously Delphic musings on identity formation, an extended metaphor about a disc-changing turntable as a multiverse, and some narrative back-and-forth that seems to be about balancing personal risk and responsibility to others. It’s great fun in flashes, but overall it’s rather loose and lumpy, lacking clarity in its thematic intent and narrative flow. Mouawad’s work always is interesting, but this one feels like it got onstage a draft too early.

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Other productions closing shop this weekend include Weekend at Bernie’s: Live Onstage, a sort of Portland sketch-comedy all-star game; Stumptown Stages’ Johnny Cash jukebox musical Ring of Fire; Bag & Baggage’s Vietnam-War-era Troilus and Cressida adaptation Troy, USA; and, at the 21ten Theatre (formerly the Shoebox), what the director Tobias Andersen calls “Rumpole of the Bailey British humor” in The Dock Brief.

The flattened stage

“And while rubbernecking trash fires has been a time-honored tradition as long as civilization has been a thing…,” film critic/cultural commentator Lindsay Ellis’s examination of the musical Cats, in its stage and screen incarnations, is an insightful example.


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And with ArtsWatch’s own Bobby Bermea starring in Othello, why not more Moor?

The best line I heard this week

“This next song addresses romantic love strictly through the language of religion – sort of a cross between ‘Amazing Grace’ and “Let’s Get It On.’ Though I have to say, every song I have written, or will write, aims to be a cross between ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Let’s Get It On.’”
– musician Joe Henry, at Mississippi Studios recently, speaking of his song “Believer.” 

The best line I read this week

“(H)is play Orson’s Shadow, which had had successful runs in Chicago and at Williamstown, landed with an unexpected thud at the Westport Country Playhouse, which was then being run by Joanne Woodward. At intermission one night, Pendleton and Woodward watched, horrified, as audience members streamed toward the exits. Woodward graciously broke the silence, referring to her husband, Paul Newman. ‘Paul and I knew when we took over this theater that, to build the kind of theater we wanted, we’d have to drive away the audience they’ve had here for years,’ she said. ‘And I can think of no play I’d rather drive them away with than yours.’”

– from an article in The New Yorker, by Henry Alford, about the playwright and director Austin Pendleton.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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